181 F.Supp.2d 619 (W.D.Va. 2002), Civ.A. 601CV00026, Mellen v. Bunting

Docket Nº:Civ.A. 601CV00026
Citation:181 F.Supp.2d 619
Party Name:Mellen v. Bunting
Case Date:January 24, 2002
Court:United States District Courts, 4th Circuit, Western District of Virginia

Page 619

181 F.Supp.2d 619 (W.D.Va. 2002)

Neil J. MELLEN & Paul S. Knick, Plaintiffs,

v.

Josiah BUNTING, III, in his individual capacity and in his official capacity as Superintendent, Virginia Military Institute, Defendant.

No. Civ.A. 6:01CV00026.

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division.

Jan. 24, 2002

Page 620

Rebecca K. Glenberg, Richmond, VA, Jane Siobhan Glenn, Brian R. Jones, Jones & Glenn, PLC, Roanoke, VA, for plaintiffs.

Maureen Riley Matsen, Alison Paige Landry, Ashley L. Taylor, Jr., William Henry Hurd, Office of the Attorney General, Richmond, VA, for defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MOON, District Judge.

I.

A.

The issue before the Court is whether the Virginia Military Institute, a state military

Page 621

college and a public institution of higher learning, can compose and institute the recitation of a daily supper prayer without violating the First Amendment's guarantee that government "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." U.S. CONST. amend. I. 1 In this case, Defendant has established the practice of offering a daily, mealtime prayer for the purpose of assisting the Institute's cadets in developing their "spiritual dimension" by establishing in them "the habit of regular spiritual reflection" and by "exposing them" to a type of prayer commonly embraced by followers of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Because of the intense, coercive environment created by the Institute's adversative method, under which students are instructed to "subordinate [their] own personal desires and well-being to the good of the whole unit," the primary effect of this practice has been to compel students to participate in a state-sponsored religious exercise. Finally, because the prayers are drafted and recited at the direction of the Institute's Superintendent, the result is that government has become impermissibly entangled with religion.

Nothing in a court's application of the First Amendment should be taken as indicating "a hostility toward religion or toward prayer." Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 434, 82 S.Ct. 1261, 8 L.Ed.2d 601 (1962). The Founders of this nation, individuals of faith and believers in the power of prayer, "led the fight for the adoption of our Constitution and also for our Bill of Rights with the very guarantees of religious freedom that forbid the sort of governmental activity" at issue in this case. Id. at 434-35, 82 S.Ct. 1261. They led this fight, in part, because of their firm belief that the practice of religion was "too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State." Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 589, 112 S.Ct. 2649, 120 L.Ed.2d 467 (1992). James Madison voiced the sentiment that governmental establishments of religion, "instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation." Id. at 590, 112 S.Ct. 2649 (quoting James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785), in 8 PAPERS OF JAMES MADISON 301 (W. Rachal, et al., eds.1973)). "The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its 'unhallowed perversion' by a civil magistrate." Engel, 370 U.S. at 431-32, 82 S.Ct. 1261 (citing Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance).

For these reasons, as well as for those reasons articulated below, this Court concludes that Defendant's actions have violated Plaintiffs' Establishment Clause Rights. Plaintiffs' motion is therefore GRANTED in part and DENIED in part, and Defendant's motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

B.

This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. Summary judgment is appropriate according to Rule 56(c) if the movant is able to "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." "The function of the judge at the summary judgment stage is not to determine the truth of a matter or to weigh credibility, but to determine whether there is any genuine issue of fact...."

Page 622

JKC Holding Co., LLC. v. Washington Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001). Thus, if there is a reasonable dispute as to any material fact, then summary judgment is improper. In this case, where there are cross-motions for summary judgment, each motion must be considered individually, and in considering a party's motion, the facts must be viewed in a light most favorable to the non-movant. Sylvia Dev. Corp. v. Calvert County, 48 F.3d 810, 817-18 (4th Cir. 1995).

II.

Plaintiffs Neil Mellen and Paul Knick are third-year cadets at the Virginia Military Institute ("VMI" or "the Institute"). Defendant is Josiah Bunting, III, the Superintendent of VMI ("General Bunting" or "the Superintendent"). VMI is one of Virginia's public institutions of higher learning. It is "at all times subject to the control of the [Virginia] General Assembly," and it receives financial support as appropriated by the General Assembly. VA.CODE ANN. § 23-92 (2000). VMI is distinguishable from the Commonwealth's other state-run schools, however, in one, important aspect. As the Supreme Court noted, it is "an incomparable military college." United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 519, 116 S.Ct. 2264, 135 L.Ed.2d 735 (1996).

As a military school, VMI employs the "adversative method," which emphasizes physical rigor, mental stress, absence of privacy, detailed regulation of behavior, and indoctrination of a strict moral code. According to General Bunting, this method is rooted in "the development of self control, self discipline, and the belief that you must subordinate your own personal desires and well-being to the good of the whole unit--qualities important to effective combat leadership." Entering students are exposed to the "rat line," with upperclassmen tormenting and berating new students. The experience is a punishing one, bonding "new cadets to their fellow sufferers and, when they have completed the 7-month experience, to their former tormentors." United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. at 522, 116 S.Ct. 2264.

The adversative method is an essential part of the VMI experience. In the words of Defendant, it is an experience that is "more restrictive and more austere than the regular military." VMI, however, does more than just prepare its cadets for military careers; as an institution, it seeks to create "citizen-soldiers" who are well-prepared to take on leadership positions in civilian or military life. Approximately sixty per cent of the class of 2000 is pursuing a professional life outside of the military. In this way, VMI is distinct from the federal military academies, where all graduates receive commissions in a branch of the armed forces and are obligated to serve on active duty following graduation.

Plaintiffs bring this suit to challenge the VMI practice of offering a daily "prayer of thanks" in the mess hall, before cadets are seated for dinner. The prayers, which had been part of VMI's supper routine in the past, were stopped for a time and then reinstated by the Superintendent in 1995. 2 Plaintiffs insist that the prayers violate their rights under the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution, and their rights under Article I § 16 of the Virginia Constitution

Page 623

and the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom, VA.CODE ANN. § 57-1 (2000). Plaintiffs therefore seek declaratory and injunctive relief, along with nominal damages, costs and attorney's fees.

General Bunting defends the practice of the supper prayer, first arguing that it is part of a larger, non-religious ceremony known as Supper Roll Call ("SRC"). SRC begins each night (except for Saturday night) at 6:30 p.m., with a bugle call to the Corps of Cadets, directing the Corps to form up into companies and battalions in front of the barracks. Once in formation, the Corps marches from the barracks to the mess hall. When the cadets arrive at the mess hall, a cadet (except for a rat), may be permitted to fall out of formation. 3 Cadets that remain in formation then march into the mess hall, where the Corps is presented to the officer in charge. The Corps is then ordered to stand "at rest," which requires that cadets remain standing with their right foot in place. Cadets at rest are permitted to take a sip of a drink or talk quietly with a fellow cadet so long as their actions are not distracting to others.

While the Corps is at rest, brief announcements are made. Following the announcements, one cadet, usually a student known as the "cadet chaplain," reads the daily prayer, as composed by the VMI Chaplain, Col. James S. Park. Depending on the day, the prayer begins with the words, "Almighty God," "O God," "Father God," "Heavenly Father," "Father God," or "Sovereign God." Each day's prayer is dedicated to giving thanks or asking for God's blessing. For example, a prayer may thank God for the Institute, ask for God's blessing on the Corps, or give thanks for the love and support of family and friends. Regardless of the specific message, each day's prayer ends with the following invocation: "Now O God, we receive this food and share this meal together with thanksgiving. Amen." Once the prayer is completed, cadets are permitted to sit and enjoy their dinner.

In addition to arguing that the prayer is merely a segment of a non-religious ceremony, Defendant also asserts that the prayer serves an educational purpose: to "give cadets the chance to become alive to a spiritual dimension in their lives.... It accommodates the faith of those who come with faith. For others, it provides a brief moment of reflection on the importance and value of things beyond themselves." Defendant posits that "Commanders in military education settings often include prayers in ceremonies in order to show...

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4 practice notes
  • 201 F.Supp.2d 687 (W.D.Va. 2002), 6 01 CV 0054, Mayberry v. Ememessay, Inc.
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 4th Circuit Western District of Virginia
    • May 2, 2002
    ...Cir.2001). Thus, if there is a reasonable dispute as to any material fact, then summary judgment is improper. See Mellen v. Bunting, 181 F.Supp.2d 619, 621-22 (W.D.Va.2002). In this case, where there are cross-motions for summary judgment, each motion must be considered individually, and in......
  • 341 F.3d 312 (4th Cir. 2003), 02-1215, Mellen v. Bunting
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
    • August 13, 2003
    ...the district court found the prayers Page 327 unconstitutional, in violation of the Establishment Clause. See Mellen v. Bunting, 181 F.Supp.2d 619 (W.D.Va.2002). The panel opinion affirms the judgment of the district court. 327 F.3d 355 (4th Cir. 2003). II When analyzing whether the Establi......
  • 327 F.3d 355 (4th Cir. 2003), 02-1215, Mellen v. Bunting
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
    • April 28, 2003
    ...Clause of the First Amendment, but that General Bunting is nevertheless entitled to qualified immunity. Mellen v. Bunting, 181 F.Supp.2d 619 (W.D.Va.2002) (the I. A. VMI is a state-operated military college located in Lexington, Virginia. Since its Page 361 founding in 1839, VMI has been fu......
  • Mellen v. Bunting, 042903 FED4, 021215
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
    • April 29, 2003
    ...Clause of the First Amendment, but that Gen- eral Bunting is nevertheless entitled to qualified immunity. Mellen v. Bunting, 181 F.Supp.2d 619 (W.D. Va. 2002) (the VMI is a state-operated military college located in Lexington, Vir- ginia. Since its founding in 1839, VMI has been funded by t......
4 cases
  • 201 F.Supp.2d 687 (W.D.Va. 2002), 6 01 CV 0054, Mayberry v. Ememessay, Inc.
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 4th Circuit Western District of Virginia
    • May 2, 2002
    ...Cir.2001). Thus, if there is a reasonable dispute as to any material fact, then summary judgment is improper. See Mellen v. Bunting, 181 F.Supp.2d 619, 621-22 (W.D.Va.2002). In this case, where there are cross-motions for summary judgment, each motion must be considered individually, and in......
  • 341 F.3d 312 (4th Cir. 2003), 02-1215, Mellen v. Bunting
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
    • August 13, 2003
    ...the district court found the prayers Page 327 unconstitutional, in violation of the Establishment Clause. See Mellen v. Bunting, 181 F.Supp.2d 619 (W.D.Va.2002). The panel opinion affirms the judgment of the district court. 327 F.3d 355 (4th Cir. 2003). II When analyzing whether the Establi......
  • 327 F.3d 355 (4th Cir. 2003), 02-1215, Mellen v. Bunting
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
    • April 28, 2003
    ...Clause of the First Amendment, but that General Bunting is nevertheless entitled to qualified immunity. Mellen v. Bunting, 181 F.Supp.2d 619 (W.D.Va.2002) (the I. A. VMI is a state-operated military college located in Lexington, Virginia. Since its Page 361 founding in 1839, VMI has been fu......
  • Mellen v. Bunting, 042903 FED4, 021215
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
    • April 29, 2003
    ...Clause of the First Amendment, but that Gen- eral Bunting is nevertheless entitled to qualified immunity. Mellen v. Bunting, 181 F.Supp.2d 619 (W.D. Va. 2002) (the VMI is a state-operated military college located in Lexington, Vir- ginia. Since its founding in 1839, VMI has been funded by t......