Friday, May 16, 2003

Rights & Reason: VMI shall rise again...

Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore has asked the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to review a panel's decision declaring the Virginia Military Institute's "supper prayer" unconstitutional. I discussed the panel's opinion earlier at this post, and nothing in General Kilgore's statement announcing the petition for rehearing changes my opposition to VMI's practice:

"By arguably treating the mere hearing of prayer as tantamount to participating in it, the decision jeopardizes prayer in any governmental setting," Kilgore wrote in the petition to the Court. "For example, in this Court -- as in the Supreme Court -- each session begins with a brief invocation. No one is required to close his eyes or bow her head. If hearing -- or standing -- is the same as participating, it is difficult to explain how these invocations could be constitutional."

Kilgore pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court never has addressed the constitutionality of prayer in university or military college settings -- only the question of school-sponsored prayer in kindergarten through 12th grade.

"It is not just the military colleges that will be affected," Kilgore wrote. "By implicitly equating institutions of higher education with grades K-through-12, the panel opinion is written in terms so sweeping as to jeopardize the ability of any public college to include an invocation or benediction at any ceremony -- including graduation ceremonies."
The Supreme Court's "invocation" is nothing more than a brief proclamation that "God save the United States and this Honorable Court." It is not a participatory prayer or an attempt at proselytization. The VMI supper prayer was both of those things, and it took place within the inherently coercive environment of a state-run military college. That the prayer is unconstitutional as practiced by VMI should not even be a topic of serious debate. I understand Kilgore has political reasons for pursuing this matter—such as boosting his support among conservatives for his 2005 gubernatorial campaign—but even he realizes the 4th Circuit will likely not rehear this case.

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