School's Move Toward Inclusion Creates a Rift

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

WILLIAMSBURG -- The cross is small, perhaps no more than 18 inches above its base, its gleaming brass surface marked only by an inscription.

But the cross, which has graced the altar table in a chapel at the College of William and Mary for decades, has come to symbolize a passionate debate about religious tolerance ever since the school's president ordered the cross removed from historic Wren Chapel.

Gene R. Nichol, who became president of the state university in July 2005, said he wanted to make the chapel welcoming to students of all faiths. So in October he ordered that the cross be stored in the chapel's sacristy unless someone asked to display it during a service.

Nichol said the campus population has become more diverse, with growing numbers of Muslims, Hindus and people of other faiths on campus, some of whom felt put off by the cross. Until his decision, students or others who used the chapel could ask to have the cross removed for weddings or other services.

"Their sense that they were being cast as outsiders -- not intentionally, of course -- that's what concerned me," Nichol said.

In the face of continuing protests by students, alumni and the public, Nichol reversed course last week, saying the cross will now be displayed on Sundays. He also said the school will put up a plaque noting the chapel's origin as an Anglican place of worship.

"I'm always willing to listen. But what I'm not willing to do is compromise on that fundamental principle of equal access for all," he said.

Opponents welcomed the change but said it does not go far enough. They still see the cross's removal as an attack on religion, particularly Christianity, and an effort to rewrite the religious origins of the nation's second-oldest university.

"I was just stupefied," said Vince Haley of the District, who graduated from William and Mary in 1988. "You read about things that are politically correct all around us, and you shake your head and think, 'I can't believe they're doing that.' This touched closed to home."

He chalked the decision up to the general push by "radical secularists" to rid the public landscape of religious symbols.

After Nichol ordered the cross removed, Haley and others created a Web site,, and gathered 7,000 names on a petition. A video showing the cross being taken away immediately after its use in a prayer service found its way to YouTube. Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit legal organization with ties to conservative Christian Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., warned of a possible First Amendment lawsuit.

"It showed not neutrality to religion, but hostility to religion," Mathew Staver, the dean of Liberty University's law school, said Friday.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company