WILLIAMSBURG — A simple brass cross was returned to the altar of the College of William & Mary’s Wren Chapel Thursday night during a debate over whether school President Gene Nichol was right to order its removal.
Mr. Nichol justified his October decision as an attempt to make the chapel more open to people of all faiths. The 18-inch table cross didn’t keep supporters and detractors alike from packing the 120-seat chapel for the debate between conservative author Dinesh D’Souza and William & Mary religion professor David Holmes.
Previously, the cross could be removed at any time by request; now, it can be returned by request.
Mr. D’Souza argued that Mr. Nichol acted “recklessly.”
Mr. Nichol later responded to criticism by returning the cross on Sundays, but more than 10,000 people signed an online petition to put the cross back permanently.
“Why is Christianity being singled out for special exclusion?” asked Mr. D’Souza, whose books include “Letters to a Young Conservative” and “The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11.”
He contended Mr. Nichol was wrongly “driven by this idea that Christianity and its symbols are in some way offensive.”
Mr. Holmes noted that the chapel, built as an Anglican place of worship in 1732, did not even have a cross until about 1940.
Protestants, concerned about idolatry, used to be averse to having crosses in church, he said. The cross was transferred to the chapel while a local church was being renovated and has remained at the school.
“I am baffled to hear critics insist the altar has to have a cross,” said Mr. Holmes, who specializes in subjects including American religious history and architecture and worship.
Mr. D’Souza argued that the issue is not about historic authenticity.
The cross, he said, fits with William & Mary’s Christian heritage. The school was chartered in 1693 as an Anglican institution with a mission that included training ministers.
He also said Mr. Nichol had no right to act unilaterally, without consulting the broader college community, including students, parents, faculty and alumni.
Mr. Holmes pointed out that last week Mr. Nichol announced the creation of a committee that will study the issue, though he said he would be surprised if the committee were to recommend that the cross be displayed permanently, given the increasingly diverse religious backgrounds of the student body.
Mr. Holmes also said William & Mary has been a public school since 1906 and the chapel is used for a wide variety of secular events and religious services.
Both men received loud applause from the audience, which included some students wearing hand-lettered name tags reading “I support Gene Nichol.” Because the chapel is small, some people watched the debate on closed-circuit television in a room nearby.
While the men debated, about 20 people who want the cross to be returned permanently stood outside the chapel in the rain, holding a candlelight vigil.
“What kind of Christian would I be if I didn’t stand up for the cross?” said Karla Bruno, a William & Mary graduate who organized the vigil.
Mr. D’Souza initially had hoped to debate Mr. Nichol, who was out of the country when the original invitation to take part in the forum was issued. Mr. Holmes said he was participating in the debate on his own and not as a surrogate for the president.
The debate’s sponsors included the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which typically arranges debates between conservative and liberal speakers at campuses nationwide, and the Virginia Informer, an independent student newspaper at William & Mary.