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The Cross at College: Accommodation and Acknowledgment of Religion at Public Universities


Ira C. Lupu


George Washington University Law School

Robert W. Tuttle


George Washington University Law School


William & Mary Bill of Rights, Vol. 16, 2008
GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 394
GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 394

Abstract:     
In the fall of 2006, President Gene Nichol of the College of William & Mary decided that the college - a public institution - should no longer display a cross on the altar table of the college's Wren Chapel. He ordered the cross moved to a back room, from which it could be returned to the altar table during Christian worship. This decision sparked an outcry from many Christian conservatives, who asserted that President Nichol was undermining the college's historical legacy. After a period of campus furor, a special Committee proposed and the President accepted a compromise - the cross was returned to the side wall of the chapel, in a display case marked with a historical notation.

The controversy over the display of the Wren Chapel Cross provides a rich opportunity to explore the extent to which state-controlled institutions of higher learning can respond to the religious needs of students or commemorate the religious heritage of the institution. The paper briefly traces the history of the College from its original charter by the English Crown its present day public status. The paper also develops the relevant history of the Wren Chapel and the controversial cross. The paper argues that the competing arguments in this dispute over how the cross "injured" students represent far too thin a framework for exploring the relevant questions.

Instead, the paper argues, the only possible justifications for a public college manifesting a religious voice are theories of accommodation and acknowledgment of religion. The theory of accommodation can support the provision of a chapel for student worship, but cannot justify the central placement of a cross in the chapel as a default configuration. The paper breaks down the theory of acknowledgment into three separate strands - acknowledgment as an accurate rendering of history, acknowledgment as an expression of reverence, and acknowledgment as a response to secular elements of present culture. The paper unpacks the three theories, and tests the dueling claims about the placement of the Wren Chapel cross against each. The lessons to be drawn from this controversy should be illuminating for all public universities in their consideration of religious displays on campus.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 99

Keywords: religion, university, Establishment Clause, constitution, First Amendment

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Date posted: February 6, 2008  

Suggested Citation

Lupu, Ira C. and Tuttle, Robert W., The Cross at College: Accommodation and Acknowledgment of Religion at Public Universities. William & Mary Bill of Rights, Vol. 16, 2008; GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 394; GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 394. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1090218

Contact Information

Ira C. Lupu (Contact Author)
George Washington University Law School ( email )
2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States
202-994-7053 (Phone)
Robert W. Tuttle
George Washington University Law School ( email )
2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States
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