- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2000


Deep in the heart of the Bible Belt, a religious confrontation has pitted East Texas pagans against Christians over a banner at Stephen F. Austin State University.

The sign, which came down two weeks ago but is scheduled for resurrection in another two weeks, unequivocally explains who controls the state-funded university.

"This campus belongs to God," according to the banner strung across Vista Drive, the main entrance leading to the administration building.

"The Earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world and all who live in it," the sign continues, quoting Psalms 24:1.

The banner has gone up during a spasm of campus religiosity following a recent dispute over whether the school should sanction a pagan society.

Last fall, a small band of Wiccan students won approval for a campus pagan society in what Student Government Association president Sean Bradley said was the most heated issue of his 1 and 1/2 years in office.

The final vote, 16-15, came after religious leaders opposed including the pagans amid the roughly 180 student groups that vie for about $50,000 in student fees each year. More than 12,000 students attend the university.

"It was hot, very hot last fall," Mr. Bradley said.

For a few months until after the first of the year, the dust seemingly had settled. Then, on Jan. 18, chalk drawings were placed around the University Center inviting students to pagan meetings.

One, for example, had a blue pentacle, a five-pointed star used in magic, with a tree growing out of it. Looking down was the eye of Ra, the sun god of ancient Egypt.

A week and a half later, after the drawings had been scrubbed from the sidewalks, Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship hung its banner over the school entrance off North Street.

In addition, the fellowship, which is associated with the Assemblies of God, posted fliers around the campus and bought two full-page ads in the campus newspaper with the same message: "This campus belongs to God."

"This definitely is retaliation," said Sarah Hudson, founder and president of the Pagan Students Alliance. "We thought about coming back with some kind of response, but there really doesn't seem to be any reason to stir the pot any more."

Gary Paschal, Assemblies of God campus minister, said there is no connection between the banner and the pagan society. Chi Alpha planned to make a big push for Christian awareness during the spring semester, Mr. Paschal said, and the banner is part of the effort.

He said Chi Alpha will put up the sign again in two weeks and hopes to continue that through the semester.

According to university rules, the sign can go up for 14 days, must come down for two weeks and then can return for another 14 days.

"This is a coincidence," Mr. Paschal said. "Some feel like this is a response to the pagans because of the timing. But this isn't a slam against them."

But the banner has been criticized by some students and others.

"This is absurd," said Jim Harrington, director of the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project.

"I have a big problem using public facilities to endorse religious beliefs for such a long period," he said. "It's not like allowing a free-speech area to be used for an hour. The university is allowing the sign to stay up for 14 days."

University spokesman James Hoard said the school is allowing students another constitutional right: freedom of speech. The school allows any campus organization to use the banner space across Vista Lane, as long as the message isn't threatening.

"We want free speech to be exercised," Mr. Hoard said. "If the pagan group wants to put up a sign, and the location is available, then it can."

While last fall's debate over allowing the pagans a place on campus was a big issue, the banner topic hasn't caused much of a stir. A satire by student newspaper columnist Justin Klatt headlined "God, SFA form divine merger" sparked a small wave of letter-writing, pro and con. A group of Christian students prayed for Mr. Klatt's soul. But that's about it.

"Five years ago, or so, this would have been a big issue on campus," said political science professor Wayne Johnson, a self-described campus activist for 30 years.

"But the students aren't particularly excited about this church-and-state issue," he said. "The issues that concern them most evolve around money, like grants and the stock market and jobs in their future."

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