Sunday, July 6, 2008

ACLU asks Naval Academy to halt prayer at noon meals

Since its founding in 1845, the U.S. Naval Academy has asked midshipmen to stand for a prayer at noon meals.

The American Civil Liberties Union wants the practice discontinued, saying it makes some people uncomfortable.

Here's a short story by Adelle M. Banks of Religion News Service.

ACLU seeks end to noontime prayer at U.S. Naval Academy

WASHINGTON (RNS) The American Civil Liberties Union has asked the U.S. Naval Academy to halt its practice of expecting midshipmen to stand for a prayer at their noon meals, saying it makes some of them uncomfortable.

"We believe it is long past time for the Naval Academy to discontinue the official lunchtime prayers that all midshipmen are compelled to attend," wrote Deborah A. Jeon, legal director of the ACLU of Maryland, in a letter to a vice admiral at the academy in Annapolis, Md.

ACLU officials tied their request to a 2003 federal appeals court ruling that organized prayers before mandatory meals at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., were unconstitutional.

"People have to separate themselves out if they do not wish to be seen praying," said Jeremy Gunn, director of the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "It's creating a dual status for people, those who are accepting the Naval Academy's prayer versus those who are not."

Gunn said the May 2 letter from the ACLU followed a similar request last year. He said the ACLU, which has heard from nine midshipmen concerned about the tradition, will consider suing if the policy does not change.

The academy, in a statement, said it is developing a response to the ACLU but seemed reluctant to change a tradition that's been a part of academy life since it was founded in 1845.

"The academy does not intend to change its practice of offering midshipmen an opportunity for prayer or devotional thought during noon meal announcements," it said.

In a September 2007 memo drafted after a previous ACLU complaint, the U.S. Naval Academy called the noon meal prayer "a worthwhile and beneficial practice that tangibly supports the mission of the USNA, as well as individual midshipmen who are preparing to lead sailors and Marines in the fleet."

It said the prayer is "not mandatory or compulsory" but midshipmen are "expected to be respectful of those who do wish to pray."

The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., has also been questioned about evangelistic practices on its campus. The Air Force issued guidelines in 2006 saying "nondenominational" prayers may be appropriate in military ceremonies.

-- Adelle M. Banks
Read this at RELIGION Blog.

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