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Appeal of VMI prayer decision fails to win high court review

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court turned back April 26 a last attempt to reinstate mealtime prayers at Virginia Military Institute.

The high court announced it would not review a decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that the traditional invocation at VMI’s supper roll call ceremony was a violation of the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion.

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, wrote a dissent from the majority’s decision. Public dissents from denials of appeals are unusual. Four of the nine justices must agree to grant review of a ruling.

Scalia wrote that the high court should hear the case in order to consider the appeals court’s reliance upon Lee v. Weisman, a 1992 decision rejecting prayer at a junior high graduation. “The weighty questions raised by petitioners -– about the proper application of Lee where adults rather than children are the subjects, and about the constitutionality of traditional religious observance in military institutions -– deserve this court’s attention…,” Scalia wrote.

Associate Justice John Paul Steven defended the court’s denial, saying in his opinion there was no “direct conflict” with other federal appeals courts.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, expressed displeasure with the decision.

“It is disappointing to see the court let stand a decision that bars voluntary prayer at dinner -– a respected and time-honored tradition at a military institution that has played a vital role in training military leaders for more than 160 years,” Sekulow said in a written statement. “The court is sending the wrong message by refusing to take the case -– a message that only reinforces what appears to be a growing hostility toward anything religious in our culture.”

Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State hailed the decision. “The Constitution does not allow public schools to pressure students to pray, and this action is a reaffirmation of that important principle,” Lynn said in a written release. “Decisions about when and how to pray should be made by Americans without interference from the government.”

In his dissent, Scalia said the “prayer was voluntary” at the state military college in Lexington, Va., “but nonparticipating cadets were required to remain respectfully ‘at rest’ for its duration.”

The case was Bunting v. Mellen. Josiah Bunting III has retired as superintendent of VMI. Neil Mellen and Paul Knick, VMI cadets who challenged the school tradition, have graduated from the college.

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