WILLIAMSBURG, Va. –As a Catholic, Vince Haley often went to Mass at the College of William and Mary‘ s historic Wren Chapel when he was an undergraduate in the 1980s. Also a Catholic, school President Gene R. Nichol often goes to the 120-seat chapel alone at night to think in the quiet.
Both agree the chapel is a sacred space meaningful to students, alumni, faculty and staff of the public school who use it for religious services and secular events.
They clash, though, over what to do with an unadorned, 18-inch brass cross that had been displayed on the altar since about 1940.
Nichol ordered the cross removed in October to make the chapel more welcoming to students of all faiths. Previously, the cross could be removed by request; now it can be returned by request.
“It’s the right thing to do to make sure that this campus is open and welcoming to everyone,” Nichol said. “This is a diverse institution religiously, and we want it to become even more diverse.”
Haley and more than 10,000 supporters who have signed his online petition since last fall want Nichol to put the cross back on the altar permanently. More than 1,100 students, alumni and others have signed a petition in support of Nichol since Jan. 31.
In response to early protests, Nichol decided in December to return the cross to the chapel on Sundays, and he recently created a committee that will examine the role of religion at public universities and the use of the chapel.
The school’s governing Board of Visitors meets this coming Thursday and Friday, and Haley and his supporters — including some alumni who have threatened to withhold donations until the cross is permanently restored — want the panel to overrule Nichol. The board’s agenda will not be available until midweek, a school spokesman said.
“The message that is sent by removing the cross is that we no longer value that part of our heritage, and that’s a mistake,” said Haley, research director at the American Enterprise Institute for former House speaker Newt Gingrich. “It reflects a view that religious symbols — religion and the public expression thereof — are somehow an obstacle for us to get along with one another.”
Nichol, who became president in 2005, said perhaps 20 people mentioned concerns about the chapel’s cross to him during his first year and a half in the job.
“Does that marvelous place belong to everyone, or is it principally for our Christian students?” Nichol said. “Do we actually value religious diversity, or have we determined, because of our history, to endorse a particular religious tradition to the exclusion of others?”
William and Mary, founded by royal charter in 1693 with a mission that included training Anglican ministers, is the nation’s second-oldest university after Harvard. Alumni include President Thomas Jefferson.
William and Mary became a public school in 1906.
The chapel, built in 1732, is a wing of the Wren Building, which the university says is the country’s oldest academic building in continuous use, built between 1695 and 1699.
The issue has drawn the attention of prominent conservatives including Gingrich, who recently weighed in with an opinion column.
The student assembly defeated a resolution to return the cross, and Nichols’ decision was endorsed by faculty and by Campus Ministers United, Jewish and Christian clergy who advise campus religious organizations.
Student Clare Ngomba said she was initially shocked by Nichol’s action because she is a Christian, but said she came to agree with him.
“Because we’re a public college, it’s a better thing so that people are more open and more welcomed into the community,” said Ngomba, 19, of Fredericksburg.
Ro’ee Mor, a student from Israel, said that as an Orthodox Jew he was uncomfortable when he and other freshmen were taken to the chapel during orientation.
Since the cross’ removal, he sometimes goes to the chapel to meditate. “I feel more an integral part of the community due to this symbolic action,” he said.
Oscar Blayton, a Williamsburg lawyer who in the early 1960s was the first black person to attend William and Mary as an undergraduate, sees having the cross on display all the time as religious bigotry.
“Some of these people that are upset about the cross issue have a notion that it is a predominantly Christian community and Christians have more rights than other people,” Blayton said.