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