The American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to file suit against the U.S. Naval Academy over the school’s daily lunchtime prayer.
Nine midshipmen at the academy asked the ACLU to petition the school to do away with the prayers, saying that some midshipmen have felt pressured to participate.
The ACLU sent a letter to the Annapolis, Md., school saying it was “long past time” for the academy to abolish the traditional prayer, contending it violates midshipmen’s freedom to practice religion as they see fit.
The Naval Academy rejected the ACLU’s request, saying in a statement: “The academy does not intend to change its practice of offering midshipmen an opportunity for prayer or devotional thought during noon meal announcements.”
Some form of prayer has been offered for midshipmen at meals since the school’s founding in 1845, and it is “consistent with other practices throughout the Navy,” according to the statement.
One recent academy graduate, an agnostic who objected to the chaplain-led prayer, said she felt pressured to participate in the prayer at lunch, where attendance is mandatory.
“Everybody else is participating with their heads bowed and their arms crossed,” she told The Washington Post.
“It became very obvious that you aren’t participating.”
She also said that midshipmen who want to pray at lunch “have the option to pray on their own. There’s no reason they should subject everybody … to this prayer.”
Another recent graduate, who is now an atheist, told The New York Times that whether officers make participating in the prayer voluntary or not, “they make it very clear that this is the standard, and the standard is Judaism or Christianity. I feel it’s inappropriate to have this in a public institution.”
If the ACLU proceeds with its lawsuit, it’s likely to base its case on a ruling by a federal appeals court, which in 2003 struck down the Virginia Military Institute’s mealtime prayer as unconstitutional.
The Naval Academy flap is not the only instance of religious practice creating controversy at a U.S. military academy.
Cadets and officers at West Point have told The Times that until recently, cadets who did not attend religious services during basic training were sometimes referred to as “heathens,” and they complained that mandatory banquets began with prayer.
Back in August 2005, the Air Force released new guidelines for religious tolerance that discourage public prayer at official functions.
The guidelines were drawn up after allegations that evangelical Christians wielded so much influence at the Air Force Academy in Colorado that anti-Semitism and other forms of religious harassment became pervasive.
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