Despite a policy issued this week by the Air Force to discourage most public prayer throughout that service branch, the Naval Academy plans to continue having its chaplains say grace before mandatory lunch for its more than 4,100 midshipmen.
The Air Force's new policy says prayer "should not usually be included in official settings such as staff meetings, office meetings, classes or officially sanctioned activities."
Legal experts are divided over whether the Naval Academy's practice could withstand a challenge, although they said the Air Force changes could prompt the Defense Department to establish religious sensitivity policies across the military services.
The Naval Academy is the only U.S. military institution that holds formal prayer at lunch, a rite that might date to its founding in 1845. 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 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. Neither academy has ever held a prayer at lunch, spokesmen said.
The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Maryland and the Anti-Defamation League have asked the Navy to stop the lunchtime prayer based on the court's ruling, but academy leaders have declined.
Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, spokesman for the academy, said there are no plans to change the tradition. During each mandatory lunch, all midshipmen stand for announcements and prayer, or what Gibbons has called "devotional thoughts." Prayers are nondenominational and are led by Catholic, Jewish or Protestant chaplains.
A bill to safeguard the lunchtime ritual was introduced in 2003 by Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, and was passed by the House but stalled in a Senate committee. Jones filed another version of the bill last month.
"The academy should have the right to decide what's in the best interest of the midshipmen," Jones said in a telephone interview. "I'm just seeing the ACLU and these other liberal groups undermine what's been part of our history and heritage."
Eugene Fidell, a Washington-based military law expert, said that if the Navy's prayer is challenged in court, it would be scrapped.
"The era of lunchtime prayers is over, just as mandatory chapel is a thing of the past," he said. "The law has come to recognize that there's an implicit seal of approval when religious observances are conducted."
David Rocah, a lawyer for the Maryland ACLU, said the organization has not been able to litigate the matter because no midshipman has been willing to "begin their career by suing the Navy."
Retired Rear Adm. John Hutson, dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Center in New Hampshire, said there could be legal precedent for defending the practice on the basis of its tradition.
"There is a pretty strong argument that can be made that a rather ecumenical prayer which is part of a long-standing tradition, and not being forced on juveniles, would withstand that scrutiny," said Hutson, who served as the Navy's top lawyer from 1997 to 2000.
The new Air Force regulations came after several internal and external reviews, including one from a team from the Yale Divinity School, which questioned evangelical proselytizing by faculty, staff and cadets at the Air Force Academy.
Hutson said the changes could cause the Defense Department to implement religious sensitivity policies across all military branches.
"Typically, the services want to be internally consistent, and, to the extent possible, one service doesn't want to become known as the religious service or Christian service and the other as the secular service," Hutson said. "This may be an area in which all the services need guidance. How we deal with something as fundamental as religion may be something we need to consider on a more universal basis."