- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

WILLIAMSBURG — The removal of a cross from the College of William & Mary’s chapel has inspired petitions, letters to the editor, opinion columns and Web journal entries.

Yesterday, a half-dozen critics and supporters of President Gene R. Nichol’s decision to put the cross in storage had the chance to express their opinions to the public school’s Board of Visitors.

The board, which previously deferred to Mr. Nichol’s judgment, did not take any action. But Rector Michael K. Powell said board members had received numerous communications about the cross and thought it was important to invite people on both sides to speak during the meeting.

“It’s only fitting to do so in the finest traditions of respectable academic discourse,” Mr. Powell said. He also asked the president’s recently created committee studying the issue to report its findings at the next board meeting, in April.

Vince Haley, a 1988 graduate whose online petition to restore the cross has been signed by more than 14,000 alumni, students and others, asked the board to put the cross back on the altar pending the committee’s report.

Mr. Nichol should have consulted others before deciding to remove the cross, said Mr. Haley, research director for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

In a statement later, the board said, “Reversing the president’s decision during the time that the new committee is doing its work would only further separate our community rather than unite it.”

The board also called Mr. Nichol a “strong and passionate leader” with noble objectives and said he has the board’s confidence.

The 18-inch brass cross had been displayed on the altar since about 1940, during secular events as well as religious services.

An outcry began shortly after Mr. Nichol ordered the cross removed in October to make the chapel more welcoming to students of all faiths, and he later returned the cross to the altar on Sundays; it also can be returned at other times by request.

“Rarely has a university president been able to identify with such precision the end of his honeymoon,” Mr. Nichol, who became president in 2005, told the board.

Critics contend the removal attacks Christianity and dishonors the heritage of William & Mary, which was founded by royal charter in 1693 with a mission that included training Anglican ministers.

Bob Thompson, a 1977 graduate who is among five alumni on the committee, said Mr. Nichol’s action made him and other Christians feel like outsiders “by co-opting and redefining the most potent and important symbol of any Christian’s faith.” The committee also includes students and faculty.

The cross belonged — and still belongs — to Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Episcopal Church but was transferred to the college when the church received a new cross. Before that, William & Mary’s chapel had no cross for more than 200 years, following the common practice of English churches.

The Rev. Herman Hollerith IV, rector of Bruton Parish and member of the committee, said he wondered whether Mr. Nichol’s opponents are trying to win a victory for God or a victory over the president. He urged the board to “be cautious of the tremendous religious and political hypocrisy that surrounds this issue.”

The actual removal of the cross is “theologically trivial in the scheme of things,” Mr. Hollerith said. But he added that William & Mary has the opportunity to address a more profound issue the action raised: “the fear that God is being removed somehow from modern American life.”

Since Jan. 31, more than 1,800 people have signed an alternate online petition supporting the president. Katherine Kulick, president of William & Mary’s faculty assembly, told the board that 394 faculty members — or 71.5 percent of the school’s full-time faculty — signed a third petition supporting Mr. Nichol that was circulated on campus for a week.

James Ambrose, the student assembly’s liaison to the board, said the general sentiment among students on campus is that the removal of the cross is a non-issue.

“A lot of them are wondering why this controversy won’t go away,” Mr. Ambrose said.

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