“The federal courts in Virginia merely followed Supreme Court precedents in concluding that public colleges, like other public institutions, unconstitutionally endorse religion when they organize and sanction religious activities,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “There really was no need for the Supreme Court to review the case.”
Lawyers for the ACLU of Virginia represented two VMI cadets who balked at the college’s practice of assembling students prior to dinner to listen to a prayer offered by the cadet chaplain. First-year students, or rats as they are called at VMI, were required to attend the pre-dinner religious ceremony. Not all upper-class students were required to attend, but the courts found that the school’s emphasis on conformity puts considerable pressure on them to be present as well.
Last April, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond held that the prayers violated the First Amendment, which prohibits government from establishing religion. “The supper prayer has the primary effect of promoting religion, in that it sends the unequivocal message that VMI, as an institution, endorses the religious expressions embodied in the prayer,” the court wrote. The panel affirmed a lower court opinion also finding the prayers unconstitutional. In August 2003, the full Court of Appeals declined to revisit the case. Now that the Supreme Court has also refused to hear the case, the panel opinion holding the prayers unconstitutional is the final word.
In its ruling, the Fourth Circuit noted that the U.S Supreme Court has never directly addressed whether the Establishment Clause forbids state-sponsored prayer at a public college or university. However, the judges all agreed that the prayers at VMI are unconstitutional because they have the primary effect of endorsing religion and because student participation is coerced.
“The case reaffirms the important principle that state institutions may not endorse particular religious beliefs,” said ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca K. Glenberg.”
The plaintiffs in the case, Neil Mellen and Paul Knick, were juniors at VMI when the case began, and have since graduated. Glenberg represents Mellen and Knick with assistance from Jane S. Glenn and Brian R. Jones of Jones & Glenn in Roanoke.
Contacts: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022 Rebecca K. Glenberg, Legal Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022