Court Passes On Prayer, Potatoes

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The Supreme Court on Monday rejected cases concerning school prayer and Idaho potatoes, and ordered a lower court to rethink a decision on a state campaign finance law.

The Court said 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.

A lower federal court had found Virginia Military Institute's mealtime prayers violate the Constitution, and the high court's action means that ruling will stand.

VMI, part of the state university system in Virginia, lost a previous Supreme Court battle over its all-male admissions policy.

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 VMI, Scalia wrote in a dissent joined by fellow conservative Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. It takes the votes of four justices to agree to hear an appeal.

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."

In another case, the Idaho Potato Commission had asked justices to clarify its authority to challenge companies that improperly label potatoes as Idaho-grown products.

Attorney Carter Phillips said so-called certification marks guarantee many goods, like oranges from Florida and cheese from Denmark. "Consumers who can rely on strong and widely known marks can make informed market choices," said Phillips, representing the commission.

The commission had sued Orange County, N.Y.-based M&M Produce Farms and Sales and M&M Packaging Inc., accusing them of using an Idaho trademark without permission.

M&M bought Idaho potatoes and repackaged them in New York, according to court records. The company challenged the potato commission's licensing scheme. The dispute will continue in a lower court.

The potato commission had been supported by 20 different organizations that represent products including toothpaste, bottled water, smoke detectors, and baby products. Justices were told their certification marks are put on more than 17 billion products each year.

In VMI's case, retired generals, admirals and former senior civilian military leaders were among the school's supporters who urged the Supreme Court to hear the case.

"The U.S. military shares with VMI a venerable tradition … of including nonsectarian religious elements in its ceremonies and other military activities," former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton and the others wrote.

VMI's nightly prayers were recited by a student chaplain after cadets march into the mess hall. The prayers, one for each night of the week except Saturday, mentioned God but not Jesus or other religious figures. All the prayers concluded with the phrase, "Now, O God, we receive this food and share this meal together with thanksgiving. Amen."

The case arose when two cadets asked the school to change the prayer ceremony, and sued when VMI refused. The American Civil Liberties Union represented the students.

"In short, these are official school prayers," ACLU lawyers argued to the Supreme Court. "It is difficult to see how the school could not be seen as endorsing the religious sentiments expressed in them."

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that VMI's suppertime prayers violated the principle of separation of church and state. In its ruling last year, a three-judge panel of appeals judges pointed to VMI's military culture of "obedience and conformity."

"In this context, VMI's cadets are plainly coerced into participating in a religious exercise," the appeals judges wrote.

The full Richmond-based appeals court later divided 6-6 over whether to reconsider the panel's ruling. The tie vote meant the panel's ruling stood.

VMI's students, called cadets, were not required to recite the daily prayer, or even to listen to it, lawyers for the school argued in asking the Supreme Court to intervene. Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore also argued that the ruling against VMI threatens prayers at other institutions, including the Pentagon and the Naval Academy.

"This far-reaching decision … disregards the fact that prayer before meals, and prayer in military ceremonies, are part of the fabric of our society," Kilgore argued.

The Supreme Court also ordered a lower court to reconsider the constitutionality of a North Carolina law prohibiting political action committees from accepting individual contributions of more than $4,000.

A federal judge and appeals court agreed the law should be struck down, but the justices said those decisions should be reconsidered in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling that upheld a federal campaign finance law, known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act or BCRA.

The North Carolina Right to Life Committee challenged the law and won decisions that allowed individuals to make unlimited donations to PACs that run independent campaigns on behalf of like-minded state candidates, thus avoiding contribution limits directly to the candidate's campaign.

Justices told the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., to review the case again, taking into account the Supreme Court's December ruling in the federal campaign law case.