The US Naval Academy practice of conducting a noon-meal prayer is making its near-annual trek through the media. This time, Talbot Manvel, an “adjunct instructor” at Annapolis, wrote an article in the Baltimore Sun saying the USNA puts “tradition ahead of the Constitution.”
So how is the academy defying the Constitution? It has established a religious practice: prayer at its mandatory noon meal for its midshipmen (students). They are marched into the mess hall, called to attention to listen to announcements, and then to prayer by a chaplain before sitting to eat. They are not permitted to leave, and thus they are forced to listen.
(Manvel becomes the latest Naval Academy instructor to publicly malign his employer.) Manvel’s article is rife with error. He cites Mellen v. Bunting, in which the 4th District Court held mealtime prayers at VMI were unConstitutional — a ruling the Supreme Court declined to review. However, he ignores the ruling’s own qualifier:
We are not called upon to address whether, or to what extent, the military may incorporate religious practices into its ceremonies. The Virginia General Assembly, not the Department of Defense, controls VMI.
The Baltimore Sun printed an opposing viewpoint from another Annapolis graduate. While less eloquent, the author made the point clearly:
It is utterly preposterous to maintain that the school, by having a non-denominational prayer at mealtime, is in any way shape or form “establishing” a religion at the school.
Both of these are important points. The US Constitution does not prohibit the association of religion or prayer with government functions, nor does any such association constitute Congress making a law respecting an “establishment” of religion, as addressed in the First Amendment. (For those that don’t understand, the US military (the Department of Defense) is part of the Executive branch, while Congress is the Legislative branch, a distinction the 4th Circuit appeared to notice.)
In an apparent attempt to make the USNA appear as the Academy “not like the others,” Manvel also claims
As a result of that ruling [Mellen v. Bunting], the U.S. Military Academy and U.S. Air Force Academy stopped their prayers.
But that’s patently false. The US Air Force Academy hadn’t had noon-meal prayers for years prior to that ruling, making any association with the 4th Circuit’s ruling fiction.
In addition, contrary to Manvel’s dire warning about midshipmen being “forced to listen,” the dissent to the 4th Circuit’s ruling noted
An adult possessing the disciplined willpower demonstrated by the cadets at VMI, standing in silence while a short prayer is read, is not forced to engage in any act of worship contrary to his or her beliefs. Listening to a prayer in that passive posture is no more intrusive than being exposed to the broad array of daily messages involuntarily heard or read to every citizen as the result of legitimate exercises of free speech.
Three years ago, during the annual controversy-raising over this same issue, an Academy graduate who complained of the prayers to the ACLU actually undermined her own cause when she admitted the same thing:
She said she stopped bowing her head during prayer in her junior and senior years. No one ever remarked about her refusal to bow her head and clasp her hands in front of her during prayer, she said.
“They always say, ‘If you will, please join me in prayer.’ It’s obviously optional, but the fact that everyone around you is doing it makes it a peer influence,” the academy graduate said.
She stopped because she didn’t want to do it. No one said anything. “It’s obviously optional.” Her entire complaint is predicated on her own perceptions, not any actual act or military policy. The new military officer was complaining of nothing more than hypothetical peer pressure. She’ll probably face a few more difficult challenges than that in her military career. Hopefully she’ll have the courage to do the right thing.
It is a tragic moral irony that the same group that feels the need to protect adult military members from being exposed to a prayer opposes the protection of school children from sexually-based internet sites.
The moral outrage scale seems to have been reversed.