One noteworthy school prayer lawsuit filed in Virginia forced a military college to abandon a longtime tradition, while another suit initiated in the Old Dominion led to a decision upholding the constitutionality of a mandatory minute of silence in that state’s public schools.
Both cases came about in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling in the New York case of Engel v. Vitale. The High Court in that case banned public schools from initiating prayer in the classroom, according to the Supreme Court website.
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The state of Virginia beginning in 1976 allowed public schools to instead hold a daily "minute of silence," though few did so, according to the First Amendment Center.
Its website said that after Virginia lawmakers in 2000 passed a law requiring public school students to start the day with "one minute of silence for meditation, reflection, prayer or any other silent activity," the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit, contending the state acted unconstitutionally by listing prayer among the students’ options.
U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton ruled in the state’s favor, saying the minute of silence "neither advances nor inhibits religion," the Center said. The ACLU appealed the case to a three-judge panel from the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which voted 2-1 to conclude the new law was constitutional, said the Center For Individual Freedom.
In an unrelated case involving a similar topic, the ACLU in 2001 sued Virginia Military Institute over its longtime practice of saying a prayer before each evening meal and requiring students to be present, the ACLU website reported.
The ACLU filed the suit on behalf of Paul Knick and Neil Mellen, two VMI juniors who were against the practice. It indicated VMI wouldn’t allow any of its students to be seated for dinner until the student chaplain had led them in the prayer, which was provided by the school.
Virginian Attorney General Mark Early defended the practice by VMI, the nation’s oldest state-sponsored military college, contending the ban on school prayer did not extend to "adults assembled for an official meal on a college campus," according to the news website WND.
But a federal judge ruled against VMI, saying its students had been forced to take part in a "state-sponsor religious exercise," reported the Baltimore Sun.
That newspaper indicated the state appealed the case to a three-judge appellate court panel, which upheld it.
The appellate panel concluded the Constitution banned VMI from sponsoring a religious activity and said the prayers sent the message that "VMI, as an institution, endorses the religious expressions embodied in the prayer," the Sun said.
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The state next appealed to the full appellate court – which split, 6-6, thus upholding the original ruling -- before the state unsuccessfully asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, the Sun reported.
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