WILLIAMSBURG -- The simple altar at the College of William & Mary's Wren Chapel befits the austerity of the Anglican tradition in which the school was founded. There are no ornate icons or stained-glass windows, just a few candles and an empty space where a brass cross once stood.
To some, that empty space marks the triumph of diversity over exclusivity. To others, it represents unchecked political correctness at the expense of free expression.
College President Gene R. Nichol decided in October to remove the Wren Chapel cross, unless its display is requested. Responses have been passionate, from campus discussions and newspaper editorials to an online petition and a debate this week between William & Mary religion professor David Holmes and conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza.
Mr. Nichol defended his decision Thursday night as students returned for the spring semester and the 313-year-old public school heard its first State of the College address.
"I modified the way in which the cross is displayed in the ancient Wren Chapel seeking to assure that the marvelous Wren -- so central to the life of the college -- be equally open and welcoming to all," Mr. Nichol told roughly 400 students, alumni and faculty packed into the college's Commonwealth Auditorium.
Mr. Nichol said the decision has received wide support but "many, many have seen it otherwise" and have asked him to reconsider.
As a result, Mr. Nichol announced the creation of a presidential committee to study the role of religion at public universities.
The committee co-chairmen will be James Livingston, head of the college's religious studies department, and law professor Alan Meese, leader of the faculty assembly. The committee also will include faculty, student and alumni representatives.
Mr. Nichol said removing the cross has raised broader questions: "Does the separation of church and state at public universities seek a bleaching of the importance and influence of faith and religious thought from our discourse?" and "Can a public university honor and celebrate a particular religious heritage while remaining equally welcoming to those of all faiths?"
"Those are hard questions to navigate, but they can be navigated," Mr. Nichol told The Washington Times after his speech. "I look forward to the committee answering them."
The 2-foot-high, century-old bronze cross has been on display continuously since Williamsburg's historic Bruton Parish donated it to the college in 1940. Policy allowed it to be removed by request.
William & Mary is the country's second oldest college, chartered in February 1693 by King William III and Queen Mary II. It became state-supported in 1906 and coeducational in 1918, according to the university. The college has roughly 7,500 undergraduates and graduate students. Alumni include four U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler.
Mr. Nichol explained his decision in an e-mail to the college community.
"I have been saddened to learn of potential students and their families who have been escorted into the chapel on campus tours and chosen to depart immediately thereafter," he said. "And to hear of a Jewish student, required to participate in an honor council program in the chapel during his first week of classes, vowing never to return to the Wren."
Opponents of the decision say it shows inconsistent reasoning: removing the religious symbol of one faith to appease people of other faiths.
"We are going to support someone who is so intolerant that, when they see someone else's religious symbol, they leave?" asked junior Joseph Luppino-Esposito.
He is a member of the Save the Wren Cross Coalition, a group of students and alumni who created the online petition calling for the policy to be reversed. The petition has amassed more than 10,000 signatures.
The Hillel Jewish student group supports the policy change.
"With the cross in the chapel ... it was, 'Welcome to our school,' and once the cross was removed, it became, 'Welcome to my school,' " Hillel Director Geoffrey Brown said. "This is all of our places, not just somebody else's."
Hillel has scheduled its Passover seder for Wren Chapel, the first time the group has used the space in recent history, Mr. Brown said.