msnbc.com news services
updated 4/26/2004 11:06:35 AM ET 2004-04-26T15:06:35

The Supreme Court said Monday it will not consider reinstating mealtime prayers at a state-funded military college, turning aside an appeal from Virginia officials who wanted to preserve the tradition.

Justice Antonin Scalia blasted his colleagues for refusing to hear the case, arguing that it raised important church-state questions. Leaving those issues unresolved is unfair to Virginia Military Institute, Scalia wrote in a dissent joined by fellow conservative Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

The three most liberal justices wrote their own explanation for why the high court should stay out of the case.

A lower federal court had found VMI’s mealtime prayers violate the Constitution, and the high court’s action means that ruling will stand.

The Supreme Court in 1962 banned prayers in public school classrooms and 30 years later barred prayers at graduation ceremonies. In 2000, the justices struck down student-led prayers at high school football games.

The prayers at VMI, founded in 1839 as a state-funded military college in Lexington, Virginia, were written by the school’s chaplain. He composed a separate supper prayer for each day.

Road map to the Supreme CourtThe prayers, read by a cadet, begin with “Almighty God,” “O God,” “Father God,” “Heavenly Father,” or “Sovereign God.” Each day’s prayer was dedicated to giving thanks or asking God’s blessing.

The prayer, which lasted less than 30 seconds, was part of a supper roll call ceremony held every night except Saturday. The cadets were not required to recite the prayer.

Cadets Neil Mellen and Paul Knick sued in 2001 and claimed the prayers violated constitutional church-state separation.

VMI, part of the state university system in Virginia, lost a previous Supreme Court battle over its all-male admissions policy. The high court forced VMI to admit women in 1996, as Scalia noted dryly in his dissent Monday.

“VMI has previously seen another of its traditions abolished by this court,” he wrote. “This time, however, its cause has been ignored rather than rejected — though the consequences will be just the same.”

Justice John Paul Stevens said although the case raised important issues, it has significant procedural and other problems.

It takes the votes of four justices to agree to hear an appeal. The written, back-and-forth comments released Monday shows that, at most, Scalia and Rehnquist collected just one additional vote to hear the case.

The justices in the court’s ideological middle, Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy, did not reveal whether why they did not want to hear the case.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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