A federal court judge in Lynchburg ruled today that school-sponsored prayers at Virginia Military Institute violate the constitutional mandate for separation of church and state. Lawyers for the ACLU of Virginia represented two VMI cadets who challenged the school's practice of assembling students for a prayer ceremony prior to each evening meal.
In his ruling, Judge Norman K. Moon wrote: "Because of the intense, coercive environment created by the Institute's adversarial method, under which students are instructed to 'subordinate [their] own personal desires and well-being to the good of the whole unit,' the primary effect of this practice has been to compel students to participate in a state-sponsored religious exercise. Finally, because the prayers are drafted and recited at the direction of the Institute's Superintendent, the result is that government has become imperisssibly entangled with religion."
"The right not to be pressured by the state to participate in a religious activity is just as important as the right of all persons to freely choose their own religion," said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. "The court reminded us of that important principle today."
"When the students came to us with their complaint, we hoped to resolve the matter short of litigation," said ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg, who argued the case before Judge Moon on December 13. "Unfortunately, neither the ACLU nor the students were able to convince VMI officials that they were violating the Constitution, and we had to take the case to court."
"This was not an attempt by the ACLU or the students to remove religion from the VMI campus," added Willis. "Every student should be allowed to practice the religion of his or her choice. In fact, it would be wrong for VMI to prevent individual or group religious practices that do not disrupt the school's educational process. But the Constitution prohibits the state from pressuring anyone to participate in a religious ceremony, and that is exactly what was happening here."
The plaintiffs are Neil Mellen and Paul Knick, both of whom are seniors at VMI. Mr. Mellen may be reached at mellennj@mail.vmi.edu (571)236-2186. Mr. Knick's email is knick@mail.vmi.edu. Jane S. Glenn and Brian R. Jones of Jones & Glenn in Roanoke provided additional legal counsel for Mellen and Knick.
A copy of the ruling can be found at www.vawd.uscourts.gov/opinons (go to Mellen v. Bunting)

Contacts: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia Rebecca K.Glenberg, Legal Director, ACLU of Virginia 804-644-8022