ACLU Threatens to Sue Over VMI Dinner Blessing

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The Virginia ACLU is calling for the Virginia Military Institute to stop its practice of saying a blessing before dinner. After two cadets complained about the practice, the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter to VMI Superintendent Josiah Bunting III, saying, "religious activities sponsored or directed by the school are unconstitutional and should be stopped immediately."

The school has refused to abolish the tradition of saying grace, and now the ACLU "is strongly considering a lawsuit."

Rebecca Glenberg, legal counsel of the Virginia ACLU, told CNSNews.com "VMI is a state school, and the cadets who attend VMI as part of their tuition are required to pay for room and board, which includes their daily meals at the mess hall."

Glenberg added, "VMI has this procedure whereby the cadets all march into the mess hall. They are then called to attention, and while they're still standing, a prayer is delivered, and then they all sit down and eat. So in order to get their dinner, the cadets are required to be there for this prayer. They're required to be standing, and the prayer is part of the official mealtime procedure. And for those reasons, we believe that it's unconstitutional."

But Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, whose office is the legal counsel for VMI, doesn't see it that way.

In a statement Tuesday, Earley said, "Once again the ACLU goes too far. The Supreme Court has never said adults assembled for an official meal on a college campus may not hear a blessing offered for the meal."

But, Glenberg's letter states, "There is no reason to believe that the prohibition on school sponsored prayer would be any different in the college setting."

According to Earley, "as a military college, VMI is entitled to the same deference in this regard given to the work of chaplains in military settings. If the ACLU insists on taking VMI to court, we will vigorously defend the Institute and the tradition of saying grace before supper."

VMI officials said the "non-sectarian" prayer, which dates back to the 1950s, makes mention of God, but not Jesus Christ.

The two cadets who complained about the prayer, Neil Mellen, who was raised Catholic and Paul Knick, who is a church-going Lutheran, said they believe religion is personal and should not be mandated by an institution.

In an editorial to The Cadet, a student newspaper, Mellen wrote, "If VMI claims to produce honorable citizen-soldiers it seems only reasonable that those future leaders of America should live by the Constitution."

Mellen added that the prayer "promotes religion over non religion and fosters an environment in which non-participants can feel like or be treated as outsiders."

Both asked that all cadets be allowed to refuse to participate in religious activities, including the mess hall prayer, but the school refused to honor their requests.

"It became painfully clear to us that the only way to effect such a change would be with the help of an outside organization," Mellen said, explaining why they contacted the ACLU.

Before 1996, males only attended the school, but the U.S. Supreme Court ordered it must admit women because it receives state funds.

While the Supreme Court has banned praying in public schools, it has never ruled on prayer at state-supported schools.

Calls to VMI Superintendent Josiah Bunting were not returned at press time.