WILLIAMSBURG (AP) — College of William & Mary President Gene Nichol stood by his decision to remove a cross from permanent display at the public university’s chapel, despite a petition with 1,400 names of people who want the cross put back.
Last month, Mr. Nichol ordered the 2-foot-high century-old bronze cross to be kept in a sacristy of the chapel so the sanctuary would be more welcoming to all faiths, not just Christians.
It is returned to the chapel upon request.
On Thursday, Mr. Nichol told the school’s Board of Visitors that displaying the cross in the historic building excluded students of other religions.
He spoke a few hours after students and alumni presented the board with the petition.
“Some have thought that my steps disrespect the traditions of the college, or, even more unacceptably, the religious beliefs of its members,” Mr. Nichol said. “That perception lies heavy on my heart.”
Still, he said, displaying the Christian cross “sends an unmistakable message that the chapel belongs more fully to some of us than to others.”
“That distinction, I believe to be contrary to the best values of the college,” said Mr. Nichol, a constitutional lawyer.
The chapel is in the Wren Building, which is used for secular meetings, including annual schoolwide events for freshmen and seniors.
The building was finished in 1699. The college became a state institution in 1906.
Since the removal of the cross, Mr. Nichol said, students of different religions have reported using the chapel for the first time.
“In the college’s family, there should be no outsiders. All belong,” he said.
Later, Rector Michael Powell said the board supported Mr. Nichol.
Vince Haley, a 1988 William & Mary alumnus living in Washington, D.C., created a Web site that includes the online petition drive, letters to Mr. Nichol and a video of the cross being put back in the sacristy after a religious ceremony 10 days ago.
Before the policy change, he noted, the cross could be removed if a group so requested.
“What does it say about William & Mary students when they’re offended by a symbol and we respond by collapsing and putting away that what’s offensive?” Mr. Haley said.
He also objected that Mr. Nichol acted without consulting the William & Mary community.