WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A divided U.S. Supreme Court let stand on Monday a ruling that reading a prayer before supper to Virginia Military Institute cadets violated the constitutionally required separation of church and state.
The court rejected an appeal by a current and former superintendent at the nation’s oldest military college defending as constitutional the tradition of offering a brief, nondenominational prayer before the evening meal.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissent that Chief Justice William Rehnquist joined. Scalia, a conservative who supports government accommodation of religion, said the appeal raised “weighty questions” that “deserve this court’s attention.”
Although Scalia and Rehnquist wanted to review the case, it takes four votes for the court to hear an appeal.
Among those who opposed the appeal, Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, cited procedural problems with the case and a lack of direct conflict by appeals courts on the issue.
The Supreme Court in 1962 banned prayers in public school classrooms and 30 years later barred prayers at graduation ceremonies. In 2000, the justices struck down student-led prayers at high school football games.
The prayers at VMI, founded in 1839 as a state-funded military college in Lexington, Virginia, were written by the school’s chaplain. He composed a separate supper prayer for each day.
The prayers, read by a cadet, begin with “Almighty God,” “O God,” “Father God,” “Heavenly Father,” or “Sovereign God.” Each day’s prayer was dedicated to giving thanks or asking God’s blessing.
The prayer, which lasted less than 30 seconds, was part of a supper roll call ceremony held every night except Saturday. The cadets were not required to recite the prayer.
Cadets Neil Mellen and Paul Knick sued in 2001 and claimed the prayers violated constitutional church-state separation.
A federal judge in Virginia and a U.S. appeals court agreed. The appeals court concluded the cadets had been coerced to participate in a religious exercise and barred VMI from sponsoring the prayers.
Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, representing the VMI superintendents, argued a public institution of higher education may offer such a prayer at an official event with an audience of adults.
He said the appeals court ruling could have implications for prayers at other military ceremonies, such as those held at the U.S. Naval Academy, college ROTC programs and military installations.
Twelve states — Alabama, Delaware, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah — supported the appeal.