Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The decision to return a cross to the College of William & Mary’s Wren Chapel in Williamsburg for now has quieted a national debate over religious freedom, political correctness and presidential authority.

College President Gene R. Nichol and his supporters lauded as a compromise the recommendation of a special committee to study the role of religion at public universities, while those who never wanted the 18-inch brass cross removed see its return as a win.

For others, many questions remain.

At least 25 alumni withdrew donations to the 313-year-old public school — including a $12 million gift — after Mr. Nichol altered the cross’ display policy in October as an effort to make the chapel more welcoming to people of all faiths.

As of yesterday, college officials had not received word about whether the donor, who remains anonymous, reinstated the gift, spokesman Mike Connolly said.

Alumni Andrew and Connie McRoberts, who have been withholding donations because of the cross issue, welcomed Tuesday’s news but are undecided about future giving.

“We love William & Mary, but at this point … a lot of significant details need to be filled in,” Mr. McRoberts said. “Where’s it going to be? How prominent is ‘prominent’? Our preference is for it to go on the altar, where it’s been for 70 years.”

The 14-member committee recommended that the cross be returned for permanent display in a glass case, accompanied by a plaque explaining the school’s Anglican heritage and connection to Williamsburg’s historic Bruton Parish, which donated the cross in 1940.

According to the recommendation, the committee called for the display case to be “in a prominent, readily visible place.”

“It’ll be prominent and visible somewhere other than the altar,” said law professor Alan Meese, who served as co-chairman of the committee with religion professor James Livingston.

Mr. Meese added that those who want to use the cross for a religious service can remove it from the case and place it on the altar, just as those who want to use another symbol for a service can do so.

The recommendation also stipulates that the chapel’s sacristy be available to store “sacred objects of any religious tradition.” Items in the sacristy are not readily visible upon entering the chapel.

The cross debate has raised questions about the leadership of Mr. Nichol, who was appointed president of William & Mary in 2005.

“He has divided our college community in a way that no one else has,” Mr. McRoberts said. “I’ve lost faith in him as a leader in the college, but I don’t think I’m going to tie my giving to that necessarily.”

Several other alumni have said they will not give to the school as long as Mr. Nichol is president.

Others opposed to the removal of the cross say the committee’s recommendation is a good compromise.

“I am very grateful that the cross has been returned to permanent display in Wren Chapel,” Vince Haley, a 1988 graduate and a founder of the Save the Wren Cross Coalition, said in an e-mail to The Washington Times. The coalition garnered more than 18,000 online signatures calling for the cross’ return.

“The Religion Committee deserves great credit for swift action and leadership,” he said. “Its unanimous judgment to return the cross is an unambiguous repudiation of the destructive idea that William & Mary should ever tolerate any intolerance of religious symbols.”

Other coalition members expressed disappointment that the cross won’t be on permanent display on the altar.

“I don’t think it’s ideally what we were looking for, but I think it’s satisfactory,” said Benjamin Locher, a William & Mary senior who is a coalition member. “It’s not 100 percent of what Gene Nichol was looking for, it’s not 100 percent of what we were looking for, but it’s something we can rally around.”

Those who have supported Mr. Nichol also commended Tuesday’s decision.

“It recognizes the Anglican foundation and history, and at same time opens the chapel more fully to all,” Faculty Assembly President Katherine Kulick said. “Most faculty would say it carefully balances the preservation of the chapel’s historical roots while acknowledging the increasingly diverse religious beliefs” of the college community.

Geoffrey Brown, director of the college’s Balfour Hillel Jewish student group, said he would prefer that the cross not be on display at all, but is OK with a glass-enclosed cross akin to “a museum icon.” The group has decided to hold its Friday worship services at Wren Chapel, he said.

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