The Anti-Defamation League has asked the U.S. Naval Academy to stop holding prayers before midshipmen eat lunch, saying the practice is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

The request was made in a June 17 letter from Abraham H. Foxman, the league's national director, to the academy's superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt.

In the letter, Foxman says the constitutional separation of church and state is violated "when 4,000 midshipmen of many different faiths are brought together for compulsory prayer."

As precedent, the letter cites a recent ruling by a federal appeals court that organized mealtime prayers at the Virginia Military Institute were unconstitutional.

Foxman was not available for comment yesterday, a spokeswoman for the league said. His letter was first reported yesterday by the Capital newspaper in Annapolis.

Foxman's request comes at a time when the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs has been accused of permitting an inappropriately religious atmosphere. A military report issued Wednesday found that some professors, coaches and cadets at the Air Force Academy had been proselytizing for evangelical Christianity.

The report concluded, however, that there was no overt discrimination against cadets of different faiths.

In Annapolis, a Naval Academy spokesman, Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, said all midshipmen stand to hear announcements before lunch, which are followed by a prayer, a moment of silence or "devotional thoughts."

These observances are led by one of the academy's Catholic, Protestant or Jewish chaplains, Gibbons said.

"The prayer is not mandatory or compulsory," Gibbons said, and midshipmen may decline to participate as long as they do not disturb others.

Gibbons said the Naval Academy had not yet received the letter from the Anti-Defamation League and would not comment on it. He said there were no plans to alter the noontime religious routine.

Neither the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., nor the Air Force Academy has organized prayers before meals. Air Force cadets observe a 20-second period of silence, a spokeswoman for the academy said.