Naval Academy puts tradition ahead of Constitution

As an adjunct instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy, I take the oath at the beginning of each academic year to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, as I did at the beginning of my naval career at the academy. Yet the Naval Academy is defying the Constitution — specifically the First Amendment. It reads in part:

"Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

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.

To justify this practice, the academy has posted "Frequently Asked Questions about Noon Meal Prayer" on its internal website, opening with:

"The simplest explanation is that the academy has a tradition of such a prayer that goes back 160 years, to its founding, and there has been no compelling argument or reason to end the practice. More importantly, however, is the deep conviction by academy administrators throughout the years that noon meal prayer is, in fact, a worthwhile and beneficial practice that tangibly supports the mission of the USNA …"

First, is "tradition" superior to the Constitution? It used to be a "tradition" to enslave Africans-Americans, but no tradition is superior to the supreme law of the land.

Second, chaplains and chapels exist in the Navy not to establish religion but to facilitate the "free exercise thereof" on bases and especially on ships, where its people can be confined for long periods of time. And whether or not academy administrators have a deep conviction that prayer tangibly supports the mission of the academy, its practice is in direct contradiction to the Constitution's Establishment Clause.

That is the opinion of our courts and the compelling reason to end it. In 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th District ruled in Mellen v. Bunting that the Virginia Military Institute's suppertime prayer was unconstitutional: "Put simply, VMI's supper prayer exacts an unconstitutional toll on the consciences of religious objectors. While the First Amendment does not in any way prohibit VMI's cadets from praying, before, during or after the supper, the Establishment Clause prohibits VMI from sponsoring such a religious activity."

Moreover, in April 2004, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the Court of Appeals' ruling, thus affirming the lower court's decision.

As a result of that ruling, the U.S. Military Academy and U.S. Air Force Academy stopped their prayers. So why doesn't the Naval Academy stop? The Navy has a long tradition of not asking for permission but for forgiveness. In order to bring this practice to the attention of the courts, a new midshipman would have to sue in time to still be a midshipman at the time the courts would review the practice. Otherwise, if he or she has graduated and is no longer subject to the unconstitutional practice, the suit is "moot."

New midshipmen are earnest in meeting the challenges of the academy and are not encouraged to question the practices they observe. The academy is relying on the loyalty of its students not to sue. This is no way to run a federal educational institution whose leaders, faculty and students have all taken the oath to support and defend the Constitution.

The academy has its magnificent Main Chapel for Christian services, its beautiful Levy Center for Jewish services, and its pristine All-Faiths Chapel for everyone else. They exist at the academy not to promote religion but to allow the free exercise thereof. If prayer is to be heard, midshipmen should be free, not forced, to listen to prayer there. What better places for prayer can there be?

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Let's get the Naval Academy to act to fully support and defend it — not defy it.

Talbot Manvel, an adjunct instructor of naval architecture, is a 1972 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and 29-year veteran of the U.S. Navy. His email is The views expressed here are personal and do not represent the U.S. Navy or Naval Academy.

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