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, http://www.savethewrencross.org, 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.
Haley, 40, who works at the American Enterprise Institute as research director for former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), read of the cross's removal in a local newspaper not long after attending homecoming events on campus and took action.
"This is a school that calls itself the alma mater of the nation," Haley said. "The idea that you can take a cross out of the chapel at the alma mater of the nation means it can happen anywhere."
Of U.S. colleges, only Harvard University is older. William and Mary was chartered in 1693 to prepare young men as clergy and civil servants for the new colony. Thomas Jefferson was an alum. So is Robert M. Gates, the new defense secretary; he graduated in 1965.
Wren Chapel, built in 1732, is a focal point of the school. Smelling smoky from years of burning candles (and perhaps the fires that have ripped through the building) the 120-seat chapel forms a wing of the Sir Christopher Wren building, which the university says is the oldest college building in the United States.
Members of the college meet in the Wren building's courtyard every year to welcome incoming freshmen, and graduates pass through the building and ring the bell in the cupola at commencement. Induction ceremonies for the Phi Beta Kappa honor society -- which was founded at the college in 1776 -- are held in the chapel, and retiring professors deliver their final lectures there.
"It is the heart of the campus," said board of visitors rector Michael K. Powell, who is a former Federal Communications Commission chairman and a member of the Class of 1985. "It's also understandable why there's so much emotion. I can count a hundred friends who have been married in that chapel."
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the school closed the chapel to the public so the college community could gather there in private. As students from all faiths met there, however, some wondered whether the presence of the cross communicated a preference among the religions.
The cross, which was given to the school by Bruton Parish Episcopal Church, has been on display since the 1930s.
The campus community has been mostly supportive of Nichol's decision to limit its use.
A resolution to restore the cross was introduced in the student senate and overwhelmingly defeated. The board of visitors deferred to Nichol's judgment, and faculty have endorsed his decision. So has Campus Ministers United, an organization of Jewish and Christian clergy who serve as advisers to religious campus groups.
Last week, final exams were winding down, and the campus was nearly deserted. Only a few shellshocked test-takers remained.
Many shrugged off the controversy, saying the outside world seemed to care about it more than they did. But others said the removal of the cross has made for lively debates in the dorms and dining hall.
"It's part of the tradition of the rest of the school," said Connie Chung, 20, a junior from Philadelphia who is studying neuroscience.
To which her classmate Devin Mawdsley made a loud snoring sound.
"Tradition?" he scoffed.
Mawdsley, 19, a sophomore from Annandale who is majoring in international relations and Chinese, said there were more important concerns on campus.
"To take it down seems almost sacrilegious," Chung continued. She said the previous policy, in which people could ask to remove the cross, seemed to work fine.
W. Samuel Sadler, vice president for student affairs, said perhaps devout Christians feel sacrifice in removing the cross. But that is also part of the religion.
"As a Christian, that's not a sacrifice I'm unwilling to make so that other people can have the same opportunity to experience that room the same way I do," Sadler said.