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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
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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."

That President Nichol would hear concerns about the Wren Cross translated into the insider/outsider language of the ACLU is not surprising. Nichol had been actively involved with the ACLU in three different states for more than 20 years, first as an ACLU chapter president in North Florida, then as a member of the ACLU state boards in North Carolina and Colorado.

What is surprising is that Nichol would use his perch as college president to advance a secularizing agenda.

Normally, when the ACLU seeks to remove religious symbols, it must either file, or threaten to file, a lawsuit. But if a leader of a public institutions shares the ACLU world view, one can dispense with the bothersome exercises of litigation and persuasion. Instead, they can achieve their ends by administrative fiat.

If Nichol's decision is not reversed by the William & Mary Board of Visitors--led by Rector Michael Powell--at its next meeting on February 8, the secularizing implications for both William & Mary and Virginia will be clear. If the presence of the cross in the 275-year-old chapel unacceptably creates insiders and outsiders for Nichol, then surely the historically Christian Wren Chapel itself must do the same.

Indeed, Nichol has already called the chapel's continued existence into question. In a recent speech before the College community, Nichol responded to the outcry over his cross removal order by creating a "presidential committee" to examine the role of religion in public universities and to report back to him at the end of the semester. One of the questions Nichol charged his committee with is "[h]ow does one square the operation of an historic Christian chapel with a public university's general charge to avoid endorsing a particular religious creed?"

Perhaps it has not occurred to Nichol that having a long-time ACLU activist leading a review of religion at public universities is, itself, something of a hard conflict to square.

SHOULD WILLIAM & MARY'S Board of Visitors punt on the issue, then the task of righting this outrage will fall to Virginia's Democratic governor, Tim Kaine. What will he make of the Wren Chapel controversy? And if he deems President Nichol's move to be prudent, will Kaine see to the removal of the altar cross from the University of Virginia's school chapel? What about the school chapels at Virginia Tech and James Madison?

What about the other crosses across the Commonwealth? There is a cross atop the ceremonial mace of the Virginia House of Delegates that is presented by the sergeant-at-arms in the House chamber. It remains there each day until the House adjourns. The City of Norfolk likewise has a cross-adorned mace. As, coincidentally, does the College of William & Mary. For that matter, the logo of William & Mary's new Mason School of Business also has, naturally, a cross on its top. Where will it end?

THESE WORRIES are not far-fetched. For example, the ACLU is currently litigating for the removal of the century-old cross atop Mount Soledad near San Diego. In 2004, the ACLU successfully forced the dismantling of a cross from federal land preserve in the Mojave Desert. Also in 2004, the ACLU successfully threatened to sue the County of Los Angeles if it failed to remove a tiny cross in the city's logo (the L.A. County Board caved in a 3-2 vote, deciding to avoid the costs of a lawsuit).

Four hundred years ago, the Jamestown colonists waded ashore at Cape Henry and erected a cross in thanksgiving. Today, Gene Nichol, along with his ACLU allies, are working to push them back into the sea. We know the lengths to which the ACLU and its adherents will fight to erase America's historic memory by seeking the removal of crosses and other religious symbols from our public square. What is much less certain is to what lengths other citizens and their leaders will go to stop them.

Cesar Conda and Vince Haley are 1983 and 1988 graduates, respectively, of the College of William & Mary. Conda and Haley are leaders of SaveTheWrenCross.org. Conda is also a member of the College of William & Mary's Washington D.C. Advisory Council.