College professor, best-selling author, to debate future of Wren cross

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February 1, 2007

2:50 PM

p. Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Wren Chapel, David L. Holmes, the Walter G. Mason professor of religious studies at the College, and Dinesh D’Souza, a New York Times best-selling author and fellow at the Hoover Institute, will debate whether or not the Wren Cross — removed from the Wren Chapel in October by President Gene Nichol — should be reinstated.

p. The debate, co-sponsored by campus newspaper The Virginia Informer and the conservative non-profit organization The Collegiate Network, is titled “Religion and the Campus: Should the Wren Cross be Reinstated in Wren Chapel?”

p. Holmes, a professor at the College since 1965, is set to oppose the cross’s reinstatement, while D’Souza will argue for it.

p. The debate comes three months after Nichol’s Oct. 26 decision to remove the cross from permanent display.

p. The two-foot tall, gold altar cross was donated to the College by Bruton Parish Church in 1931. According to Nichol, the cross’s removal was meant to make the Chapel “more welcoming to students, faculty, staff and visitors of all faiths.”

p. Nichol’s decision was met with disagreement among some students and alumni, who felt that the cross should remain as a symbol of the College’s Christian roots. Those who protested the decision also cited Nichol’s failure to discuss the matter with students prior to the removal of the cross.

p. Soon after the decision, Vince Haley, who graduated from the College in 1988, created the website www.savethewrencross.org, establishing a petition that called for Nichol to reverse his decision. Since then, over 10,500 people have signed to support the cross’s reinstatement.

p. Despite the petition, Nichol defended himself at a Nov. 16 meeting of the College Board of Visitors.

p. “Some have thought that my steps disrespect the traditions of the College or, even more unacceptable, the religious beliefs of its members,” he said. “Though we haven’t meant to do so, the display of a Christian cross — the most potent symbol of my own religion — in the heart of our most important building sends an unmistakable message that the chapel belongs more fully to some of us than others.”

p. At the same meeting, the BOV — headed by Rector Michael Powell — praised Nichol for his accomplishments during his term.

p. “It is clear from your report that there are a lot of great things going on here, even the occasional controversy,” Powell said. “In all that you do, you continue to make this board proud, and we’re grateful for your leadership.”

p. While the BOV offered tacit approval over the cross removal, the issue remained contentious for those opposed to the decision. In response to the outcry, Nichol announced two changes to the policy in a Dec. 20 school-wide e-mail. Beginning immediately, Nichol said, the cross would be displayed all day on Sundays, and a plaque would be installed to “commemorate the Chapel’s origins as an Anglican place of worship and symbol of the Christian beginnings of the College.”

p. Nichol also acknowledged that his decision was made in haste without properly consulting the College community.

p. “I have also perhaps added to the turmoil by my own missteps. I likely acted too quickly and should have consulted more broadly. Patience is a vital virtue — especially for a university president. I’m still learning it. The decision was also announced to the university community in an inelegant way.”

p. Despite the addendums to the policy, disparity on the issue has remained. Since October, the issue has been featured in the national media, including Fox News and the Washington Post. Wednesday, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the United States House of Representatives, wrote in the National Review Online that Nichol’s decision represented the use of “arbitrary” judgment.

p. “Tearing down long-established religious symbols is … as unacceptable as needlessly erecting new ones,” Gingrich said.

p. Gingrich also said in the article that the cross removal “bears the unmistakable influence” of College Chancellor Sandra Day O’Connor, who has supported non-endorsement of religion in public institutions.

p. Brian Whitson, the Director of University Relations, denied O’Connor’s involvement in the removal.

p. According to Wednesday’s edition of the Virginia-Pilot, Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine also had reservations about the removal.

p. “My basic feeling about it, though, is, look, [the Wren Chapel] was built at William and Mary as a chapel. And I think to respect what it has been, the role it has played in the College, and have the cross there certainly did not offend me,” Kaine said.

p. “[The cross] recognizes the history of what [Wren Chapel] has been, which you can’t change.”

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