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Two of the Supreme Court’s most conservative members delivered an unusual public rebuke to more liberal justices yesterday, accusing them of ducking an important church-state fight over mealtime prayers at a taxpayer-funded military college.

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, said the court should have taken the case to answer for the first time whether its ban on school-sponsored prayer for young children and high schoolers applies to college students as well.

Scalia delivered a polite but blunt critique of what he suggested are flimsy reasons for avoiding an appeal on behalf of the Virginia Military Institute, which is part of the state’s university system.

The VMI case also gave the court an opportunity to rule on the constitutionality of traditional religious observance in military institutions, Scalia said.

The court already is considering a major case about religion in schools. Justices are expected to rule by summer on whether the current wording of the Pledge of Allegiance, with its reference to “one nation under God,” can legally be recited in public schools.

Scalia recused himself from that case because of remarks that seemed to prejudge the case.

At VMI, a student chaplain recited the mess-hall prayers, which concluded with the phrase, “Now, O God, we receive this food and share this meal together with thanksgiving. Amen.”

Two cadets asked the school to change the prayer ceremony. They sued when VMI refused.

Since the 1960s, the Supreme Court has outlawed official prayer in a variety of public-school settings, including classrooms and at high-school graduations. The court has pointed to the special circumstances of grade schools and high schools, with their many rules, enforced attendance and young pupils.

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