The dispute over the placement of a historic cross in the Wren Chapel at William & Mary College now stands at more than 5,000 people seeking the restoration of the antique, and one against, but who’s counting?
The students and alums who have assembled in a group called SaveTheWrenCross.org have confirmed that their online petition has collected, as of late yesterday, 5,211 signatures from students, alums and friends of the Virginia university in support of restoring a bronze cross that had been donated to the school not quite a century ago.
They recently were unsuccessful in a lobbying campaign to have the school’s board address the situation that was created on orders from Gene Nichol, the president, who reversed a long-standing policy that allowed the cross to be removed if secular events were planned in the historic facility. His new procedure requires the cross to be in storage UNLESS someone specifically requests it for an event.
Now the student group has told the Hampton Roads Daily Press that under a Freedom of Information Act request, the school was able to produce a single letter from someone with a concern about the cross being in the chapel.
William and Mary spokesman Brian Whitson told the newspaper in addition to that letter, there were “a number” of people who spoke directly to the president, but those comments were unrecorded and undocumented.
Nichol decided in October to remove the cross, because he wanted the building to be more welcoming to students of differing faiths. The cross had been on the altar since the 1930s but now is in storage.
But the coalition this week renewed its call for the cross to be returned, because of the lack of evidence that there was a desire to remove it.
Whitson said most of the conversations Nichol had were in person, and some people talked to him after he wrote a guest column in a student publication mentioning the chapel.
The president earlier this month used his appearance before the school’s Board of Visitors to defend his actions in ordering the removal of the cross, but board members were given no opportunity to consider the actions or respond, officials said.
College spokesman Brian Whitson told WND that President Gene Nichol “did make some remarks during a regular report to the board” but since a petition drive asking the school to restore the cross to the chapel was not on the board’s agenda, no action was taken.
WND broke the story on Oct. 27 that the two-foot-tall, century-old cross had been removed on the order of school managers.
Nichol then went before the board defended his decision. In his address, he said, “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 to others.”
That, he said, is bad for the school.
“I make no pretense that all will agree with these sentiments. The emotions and values touched by this dispute are deeply felt,” he said. “I have been pleased to learn that students of disparate religions have reported using the Chapel for worship and contemplation for the first time.”
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor did not return a message left by WND seeking a comment. She recently was named chancellor of the college.
It was during her tenure in the Supreme Court that a growing intolerance by the court for religious symbols – particularly Christian symbols – in public places became evident.
The petitioners are objecting to the policy change that removes the cross from the Wren Chapel, a 274-year-old facility used for both religious and secular events on campus.
“We, the undersigned students and alumni of the College, and concerned citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia, disagree with your order to remove the Wren Cross from display on the Wren Chapel altar,” the petition says.
“The Wren Cross was given to Wren Chapel by Williamsburg neighbor Burton Parish Episcopal Church in the 1930s and has been a fixture on the altar ever since that time. Before your order, the policy was that if a group or individual using the Wren Chapel desired to not have the Wren Cross on display during their use of the Wren Chapel, then the Wren Cross was removed during such event and then returned to the altar.
“We petition you to rescind your October 2006 order and return to the policy that had governed the display of the Wren Cross prior to your inauguration as the 26th President of the College on April 7, 2006.”
Vince Haley, a 1988 graduate, set up the website and launched the campaign when he found out what had happened.
“In the name of tolerance, we have intolerance; in the name of welcoming, we have hostility, and in the name of unity, we now have division,” said junior Joe Luppino-Esposito.