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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, January 26, 2002

Cadets' dinner prayer illegal

Associated Press

LYNCHBURG, Va. — A federal judge ruled Thursday that saying grace before dinner at the state-supported Virginia Military Institute is unconstitutional.

VMI, based in Lexington, has held the prayers since the 1950s. The ACLU sued the school last May on behalf of two cadets.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon called the ceremonies a "state-sponsored religious exercise."

"Because the prayers are drafted and recited at the direction of the institute's superintendent, the result is that government has become impermissibly entangled with religion," Moon wrote.

Attorney General Jerry Kilgore said he would appeal.

"It's a shame today that while American soldiers are fighting for our liberty in places like Afghanistan, cadets training to be soldiers cannot pray for their safety," Kilgore said at a news conference.

He said the prayer is part of a "militaristic ceremony" that is central to VMI's mission and a matter of academic freedom.

Every night cadets march into the mess hall in formation. Before they are served dinner, a member of the corps reads a nondenominational prayer.

A VMI spokeswoman said all school prayers would be stopped immediately.

One of the cadets who sued, Neil Mellen, 23, said after the ruling: "I hope that those who do value prayer realize that there is no end to prayer in the mess hall. They can pray in their own personal way, which is better than the bland way that they're doing it now."