Naval Academy Will Continue Mealtime Prayers
The Naval Academy has no plans to drop the regular saying of grace before its midshipmen’s lunch, despite a policy issued this week by the Air Force to discourage most public prayer, a spokesman said. The Naval Academy is the only U.S. military institution that holds formal prayer at lunch, a ritual that might date to its founding in 1845. Its chaplains say grace at the mandatory lunch for its more than 4,100 midshipmen.
Academy spokesman Cmdr. Rod Gibbons said there are no plans to change the tradition of what he has called “devotional thoughts.” Prayers are nondenominational and are led by Roman Catholic, Jewish or Protestant chaplains.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2003 that mealtime prayers at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., violated the First Amendment. The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Maryland and the Anti-Defamation League have asked the Navy to stop the lunchtime prayer based on that ruling, but academy leaders have declined. David Rocah, a lawyer for the Maryland ACLU, said the organization has not been able to bring a suit because midshipmen are reluctant to “begin their career by suing the Navy.”
The Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo., holds 20 seconds of silence before lunch, and no prayer precedes the noon meal at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. The new Air Force regulations came after several internal and external reviews that questioned evangelical proselytizing by faculty, staff and cadets at the Air Force Academy.
These prayers at a mandatory government function are almost certainly in violation of decades of Supreme Court rulings on the Establishment Clause. Further, they serve no obvious secular public policy purpose.
Still, this is no real surprise. The Navy, far and above moreso than the other armed services, is bound by tradition. The Navy has, for example, held the line against eroding the officer-enlisted distinction far moreso than its sister services. While weapons and tactics evolve quickly, the culture of today’s Navy would be quite familiar to an 18th century sailor from the British Royal Navy, right down to the uniforms.