An evenly divided federal appeals court Wednesday refused to reconsider a ruling that group prayers before evening meals at Virginia Military Institute (search) were unconstitutional.

The 6-6 vote by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lets stand a three-judge panel's decision that the prayers, although nondenominational, violated the separation of church and state (search).

One of the dissenters, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, wrote that he disagreed with the panel's finding that VMI's emphasis on conformity pressures cadets to participate in a religious exercise.

"I doubt that cadets who are deemed ready to vote, to fight for our country, and to die for our freedoms, are so impressionable that they will be coerced by a brief, nonsectarian supper prayer," he said.

None of the judges voting on the prevailing side explained their reasons.

Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore said he would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"These prayers are part of VMI's educational program and are precisely the kind of prayers recited in the United States military, on ships at sea each night, and before lunch at the United States Naval Academy," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union (search) sued on behalf of two former cadets in May 2001 and argued that the school's rigid atmosphere did not accommodate cadets who did not wish to participate.

Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU Virginia, said Wednesday's ruling was "a close call" but expressed hope it would conclude the court case.

VMI, a state-supported school in Lexington, discontinued the prayers while the lawsuit was pending.