Lawyers: Wren cross interesting, but not legally significant

Two years ago, former College of William and Mary President Gene Nichol removed the altar cross from permanent display in the Wren Chapel, sparking a national controversy that raged for more than a year.

Today, legal experts are still discussing the legal implications of Nichol’s decision.

The William and Mary Law Review recently published two articles exploring the legal aspects of the Wren Cross controversy, one by Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of University of California-Irvine, and another by Gene Bradley, a University of Notre Dame law professor.

“Nichol was a noted constitutional scholar. I think for other professors, the fact that [Nichol] was involved in legal matters attracted them to the issue,” Law Review Editor-in-Chief Aaron Garrett J.D. ’09 said.

Chemerinsky, whose article argued in agreement with Nichol’s actions, cited the depth of the controversy as the main reason for national appeal of the case.

“President Nichol’s action generated intense opposition from the religious right. It played a key part in his ultimately being fired,” Chemerinsky told The Flat Hat. “It will be remembered because of the huge controversy surrounding what occurred.”

In addition, Bradley, whose essay opposed Nichol’s decision, stated that the circumstances of the controversy at the College provided an unusual case.

However, the authors both agreed that although the Wren Cross controversy presented an interesting situation, it will not have a lasting effect on legal issues. Chemerinsky said that the situation did not infringe the law, while Bradley, drawing on the uniqueness of the controversy, said that it provides no precedent for other cases involving church and state.

“President Nichol’s action did not even arguably violate the Constitution, so there was no basis for challenge in the courts,” Chemerinsky said.

However, Chemerinsky also agreed that the controversy was a great reminder to the American religious beliefs today.

“The controversy is a powerful reminder that there are many who do not believe in a wall separating church and state,” Chemerinsky said.


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