A university in Oklahoma said it will consider removing religious icons from its campus chapel after receiving a letter from a group advocating their removal.
East Central University, which is southeast of Oklahoma City, said in a statement on Friday that the school had planned to remove the religious items, but its president said it would get feedback first from students, faculty and community members.
“We moved too quickly,” Katricia Pierson, president of the university, said in a statement. “We regret not taking time to pause and thoughtfully consider the request and the results of our actions on all of the students, faculty and community members who we serve.”
Pierson said the university had removed some items from the chapel, which is used for gatherings of various religious groups, student clubs and events, to show support for all cultures and religious beliefs. In a statement on Thursday, Pierson had said the school was “looking at the feasibility” of removing the cross from the chapel’s steeple, according to the Associated Press. A spokeswoman said the university is closed, and no one was available to do interviews.
The university made the decision after it received a letter from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which on June 20 noted that the chapel includes displays of Latin crosses on the top of and inside the building, Bibles and a Christian altar.
“While it is legal for a public university to have a space that can be used by students for religious worship so long as that space is not dedicated solely to that purpose, it is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to display religious iconography on government property,” the letter states. “Please remove or cover the religious displays and items.”
Ian Smith, an attorney for the advocacy group, said he does not know of other schools that have similar displays of religious iconography. Many schools have chapels that were gifts or are a privately funded part of a campus that becomes absorbed into the public university, he said.
“In this case, everything screams this is a Christian chapel,” Smith said.
Religious displays on government property have been debated over the past several decades, including the display of the Ten Commandments and Christmas nativity exhibits on government grounds.
Smith said the chapel should not include a permanent display of any religious iconography, and students can bring their own, so the chapel isn’t designated only for religious use. It would, he said, violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by which governmental entities are prohibited from taking any action that communicates “endorsement of religion.”
“Iconography communicates a message,” he said. “It can’t be a room just for religious use.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told the Tulsa World that she sent the university a letter earlier this week requesting that the school discontinue its sacred music program, which studies hymnology and liturgy, worship and composition.
Gaylor told the newspaper she believes the program violates the Constitution because it is not academic and secular in nature but religious. “ECU certainly cannot train Christian ministers to promote a sectarian religious message. Similarly, it cannot train choir leaders to promote the same message,” the letter stated.