Wednesday, March 7, 2007

At the College of William & Mary, the Wren Chapel Cross, announced college President Gene Nichol who removed the cross in October, will be returned to Wren Chapel — sort of.

Mr. Nichol and the college’s board of visitors accepted the recommendation of the school’s committee on religion at a public university, convened by Mr. Nichol as criticism began to build, to replace the cross. It will indeed be back in the chapel permanently, only in a glass case “located in a prominent, readily visible place, accompanied by a plaque explaining the college’s Anglican roots and its historic connection to Bruton Parish church,” according to the committee’s recommendations.

This is being sold as a compromise. The connotation seems clear: The cross can be in the chapel so long as its primary function is historic, not religious. On occasion, such as a religious service, the cross can be placed back on the altar, according to a joint statement by the president and board of visitors. In between, however, it will be taken from its proper place and relegated to a display case.

Why Mr. Nichol believed the simple cross — displayed in a chapel, no less — was so offensive that he needed to take what proved to be a truly divisive step by removing it is unclear. The incident incensed many in the college community, and it brought a high level of scrutiny to bear on William & Mary and on Mr. Nichol personally — leaving Mr. Nichol in the absurdly untenable position of defending his decision to dislodge the cross but permitting a risque “Sex Workers Art Show,” because, in his words, “it’s not the practice and province of universities to censor or cancel performances because they are controversial.” The Wren Chapel Cross apparently was excluded from this protection. It would seem that Mr. Nichol retained much from his days with the American Civil Liberties Union, and his definition of “controversial” is still drawn from the ACLU lexicon.

Outraged alumni seem to have brought Mr. Nichol to his senses. An online petition garnered close to 18,000 signatures, but — as college presidents inevitably fall to the influence of the almighty dollar — perhaps it was the decision of one donor last week to withdraw a $12 million pledge that really forced the school’s leadership to act. Either way, rescuing the cross from the storage room and putting it back on display is at least a step in the right direction; restoring it permanently to its rightful place on the altar would have been the better decision.

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