The Blog

The Inside Man

William & Mary's new president tries to get rid of a cross on campus.

12:45 PM, Jan 30, 2007 • By CESAR CONDA and VINCE HALEY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE 400th ANNIVERSARY of Act One, Scene One of American history will be celebrated on April 29, 2007.

On that day in 1607, English colonists, who ultimately settled at Jamestown, first landed at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay near Virginia Beach. In one of their first acts, they erected a cross to give thanks to God for safe passage across the ocean. The settlers called the place Cape Henry, and every year the raising of this cross is commemorated. A memorial cross of granite was erected on the site in 1935 by the Daughters of the American Colonists and is part of the Colonial National Historic Park, administered by the National Park Service. Today, a representation of the Cape Henry Cross is found on the seal of Virginia Beach, a city understandably proud of its heritage.

Four hundred years after the raising of the Cape Henry Cross, the symbol is under assault in Virginia. In the face of this attack, many political leaders across the Commonwealth, including Governor Tim Kaine and Rector Michael Powell, of the College of William & Mary, have been largely silent. Apparently they are poised to accept a radical argument about the appropriateness of the public display of crosses offered by the new president of William and Mary. If accepted, this argument will directly and logically lead to the repudiation and dismantling of the historic Cape Henry Cross, and other important crosses in Virginia.

THIS GLOOMY FUTURE has its origins at the College of William and Mary located in Williamsburg. Founded in 1693, William & Mary is the nation's second oldest university. Last year, the institution hired a new college president, Gene Nichol. Among President Nichol's early acts was his decision last October to order the removal of the 18-inch cross from atop the altar table in the school's 275-year-old Wren Chapel. A gift from the neighboring Bruton Parish Episcopal Church--the same church that William & Mary's first president, the Reverend James Blair, presided over in the 1690s--the cross had been a fixture on the Wren Chapel altar for the last 70 years.

Nichol's dictum has created a public backlash. An online petition to return the cross has garnered over 10,500 signatures. Dozens of op-eds and letters to the editor have filled local and Richmond newspapers. Williamsburg's Virginia Gazette editorialized last week "enough already," and urged the restoration of the cross.

BUT WHY DID NICHOL decide to remove the cross in the first place? Nichol wrote that over the 18 months he has been president, a number of members of the William & Mary community complained that the display of the cross is "at odds with [William and Mary's] role as a public institution." Nichol went on to cite these same community members as suggesting that the cross "sends a message that the Chapel belongs more fully to some of us than to others. That there are, at the College, insiders and outsiders." [emphasis added].

Nichol's explanation is curious because the language he attributes as coming from community members is the same language ACLU staff attorneys use in letters and lawsuits when they attempt to remove religious symbols from the public landscape.

Take for example Connecticut ACLU staff attorney Sam Brooke's December 2006 explanation as to why the ACLU objects to a Connecticut high school holding graduation ceremonies in a local Baptist church while its football field was being renovated: "It unequivocally tells Christian students . . . that they are 'insiders, favored members of the political community; those who are of different religion, or no religion at all, are told that they are 'outsiders'". [emphasis added]

Then there is New Mexico ACLU staff attorney Peter Simonson in September 2005 explaining why the cross in the Tijeras village (population 474) logo is wrong: "Religious minorities cannot be made to feel like outsiders."

Utah ACLU staff attorney Mark Lopez commented in August 2003, with respect to ongoing ACLU litigation against Salt Lake City, on why it is wrong for the Mormon Church to place restrictions on behavior on a section of its property that includes an easement for the city: "When government shows a preference for one religion it sends a chilling message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, and not full members of the community."