ACLU Files Lawsuit to Stop Coerced Prayers at Virginia Military Institute

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
May 9, 2001 12:00 am

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RICHMOND, VA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today filed a lawsuit challenging Virginia Military Institute’s requirement that students be present for a prayer ceremony prior to each evening meal.

“These prayers violate our nation’s tradition of religious freedom,” said Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. “As a state school, VMI cannot make prayer a condition for eating dinner or any other activity.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Neil Mellen and Paul Knick, both of whom are juniors at VMI who object to the practice.

According to the legal papers filed in U.S. District Court in Lynchburg, the entire VMI student body is not allowed to be seated for supper until the student chaplain leads them in a prayer provided by the school. Upperclass students are not required to attend, but if they do not, they must forgo dinner in the mess hall. All cadets, however, are required to pay for room and board.

“Every evening, school authorities assemble a captive audience of young people and put them through a religious exercise,” said Rebecca Glenberg, Legal Director of the ACLU of Virginia. “At a place like VMI, where following the orders of superiors is de riguer and conformity is a virtue, there is tremendous pressure on students to participate.”

In a letter sent in February to VMI Superintendent Major General Josiah Bunting, III, the ACLU wrote that the prayers at VMI create the same constitutional problems posed by school-sponsored religion in secondary public schools.

“This is not an attempt 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 is happening here.”

A copy of the complaint is posted on the ACLU of Virginia website at

The lawyers in the case are ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg and ACLU volunteer attorneys Jane S. Glenn and Brian R. Jones of Jones & Glenn of Roanoke, VA.

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