...the Commonwealth’s House of Delegates recently voted 83-16 to advance a bill that would require public schools to display the words "In God We Trust" in a prominent place. VMI’s Battle Over Religion Marches On

On January 24, 2002, a federal judge ruled that Virginia Military Institute’s (VMI) non-denominational dinnertime prayer is unconstitutional because it violates separation of church and state principles.

U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon, in granting a motion for permanent injunction against the prayers, ruled that, "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." Judge Moon also addressed the non-denominational aspect of the prayers in his decision: "Drafting a prayer to conform with generic, religious norms does not make that prayer ‘secular.’"

This legal battle began last May when two VMI students, represented by the ACLU, sued the state-supported university to halt the traditional prayer that mentioned God, but not Jesus Christ. Each night, the cadets were required to march in formation to the dining hall and stand at rest while orders of business were conducted, including announcements and the student-led recitation of a prayer.

The Virginia Attorney General’s office, arguing on behalf of the school, asserted that the routine was an issue of academic freedom because the "militaristic ceremony" was an important component of the institution’s military education program.

Furthermore, VMI contended that the non-denominational prayer ceremony passed constitutional muster because students were not forced to participate. A statement issued by the AG’s office maintained "[N]o one is required to recite the prayer, bow his or her head, or even participate in its recitation." However, Judge Moon felt otherwise and ruled that "Because of the intense, coercive environment created by the Institute’s adversative method…the primary effect of this practice has been to compel students to participate in a state-sponsored religious exercise."

After the judge’s ruling was handed down, Attorney General Jerry Kilgore issued a statement indicating that he would appeal the decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The statement further noted that, "Like singing ‘God Bless America’ and saying ‘God Bless this Honorable Court,’ these prayers are part of the fabric of our country and are beyond the scope of what the framers intended to prohibit by the 1st Amendment."

While Virginia’s Attorney General is battling this separation of church and state issue in court, the Commonwealth’s House of Delegates recently voted 83-16 to advance a bill that would require public schools to display the words "In God We Trust" in a prominent place. The bill is now on its way to the state senate where a similar bill was defeated last year.

To read Judge Moon’s opinion, please click here.

January 31, 2002
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