ACLU Might File Suit To End Lunch Prayer

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008

The American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to sue the U.S. Naval Academy unless it abolishes its daily lunchtime prayer, saying that some midshipmen have felt pressured to participate.

In a letter to the Naval Academy, Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, said it was "long past time" for the academy to discontinue the tradition. She said the practice violates midshipmen's freedom to practice religion as their conscience leads them.

The Naval Academy rejected the ACLU's request that the prayer be eliminated.

"The academy does not intend to change its practice of offering midshipmen an opportunity for prayer or devotional thought during noon meal announcements," the university said in a statement. It said that some form of prayer has been offered for midshipmen at meals since the school's founding, in 1845, and that it is "consistent with other practices throughout the Navy."

Nine midshipmen have complained to the ACLU about the practice, Jeon said yesterday. Some have since graduated. One recent graduate, an agnostic who objected to the chaplain-led prayer, said she felt pressured to take part in it.

"Everybody else is participating with their heads bowed and their arms crossed," the midshipman said in an interview. "It became very obvious that you aren't participating."

The midshipman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared her military career might be affected, said she went along with the practice at first because she didn't want to stand out. But she stopped in her third year and stood at parade rest instead of bowing her head and crossing her arms.

Those who want to pray during lunch "have the option to pray on their own," she said. "There's no reason they should subject everybody, including people like myself, to this prayer."

Academy spokeswoman Jennifer M. Erickson said that the prayer does not refer to a specific religion and that participation is voluntary. Prayers are led by Catholic, Jewish or Protestant chaplains.

The debate over whether to pray at U.S. service academies and colleges is several years old.

When the Air Force responded in 2005 to accusations of proselytizing at its academy in Colorado Springs, it issued guidelines that discouraged public prayer at most official events.

And in 2003, a Virginia appeals court struck down the Virginia Military Institute's mealtime prayer as unconstitutional. The ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League have asked the Navy to stop the lunch prayer at the Naval Academy based on the VMI ruling.

The Navy is "ignoring the law," said T. Jeremy Gunn, director of the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The government shouldn't be deciding what kind of prayer is the right kind of prayer and then coercing people into accepting their preferred kind of prayer."

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