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ADL Writes Head of Naval Academy, Urges Discontinuation of Mealtime Prayer

  June 17, 2005

Vice Admiral Rodney P. Rempt
Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy
U.S. Naval Academy
121 Blake Road
Annapolis, MD 21402-5000

Dear Vice Admiral Rempt:

We write to express our concern about the Naval Academy's formal practice of requiring midshipmen to stand for an organized prayer before they may eat lunch. This requirement is deeply troubling, as it conflicts with a controlling federal court decision and basic tenets of religious freedom.

In Mellen v. Bunting, 327 F.3d 355 (4th Cir. 2003), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that organized mealtime prayer at the Virginia Military Institute violated the Constitution. In reaching that decision, the Fourth Circuit quoted the Supreme Court's observation that "one of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way [lies] in the Government's placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer." VMI's regular mealtime prayer put a forbidden "stamp of approval" on religious observance. So does the Naval Academy's traditional ritual, and it should stop now.

Governmental institutions, like the Naval Academy, bear a special responsibility to respect the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. In keeping with the First Amendment, they must respect the rights of religious minorities and of those who are not religious at all. Consequently, such institutions may not permit any form of religious coercion among their faculty and student body, including compulsory prayer services.

We have the utmost respect for religion and for the enormous strength that our nation has derived from the diversity of faiths practiced by our people. Religion occupies a uniquely important place in our society - a protected place. But the sanctity of that place is jeopardized when 4,000 midshipmen of many different faiths are brought together for compulsory prayer - whether in a chapel or in a mess hall.

We therefore respectfully request that you discontinue the Naval Academy's practice of requiring midshipmen to stand in formation, before lunch, while the chaplain recites a prayer. We would also welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue and our concerns with you at greater length.

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director

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