East Central University did the right thing… for about a day. When I wrote this post last night, I thought ECU deserved praise for making a courageous decision, and then, this afternoon, they reversed course just as I had feared.
The story involves a cross on top of the school’s Boswell Memorial Chapel. Unlike, say, (Catholic) Newman Centers, which are independently run and maintained, this is a university run worship center that promotes Christianity with the symbol atop the building and bibles and crosses on the inside.
That’s a violation of the law, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The letter [from AU] stated: “While it is legal for a public university to have a space that can be used by students for religious worship so long as that space is not dedicated solely to that purpose, it is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to display religious iconography on government property.”
It’s understandable why administrators at ECU, trying to make the school feel more like home, would offer space on campus for students to worship. That’s perfectly fine, as long as they’re not promoting one particular faith and the space can be used by everybody. But it’s very clear that ECU is promoting Christianity in this building.
And up until last night, the administrators deserved a lot of praise for their response to AU:
East Central University in Ada will remove the cross from the steeple of its historic Kathryn P. Boswell Memorial Chapel, and will remove crosses and Bibles inside, after getting a letter requesting the changes from a national organization.
ECU President Dr. Katricia Pierson made the announcement Thursday.
“We discussed with ECU’s executive council and with the general counsel of RUSO (Regional University System of Oklahoma) and we are responding appropriately,” Pierson said.
“We do not want to presume to embrace one faith over another. We support all cultures and attempt to make them comfortable when they are here,” she said.
This wasn’t some whitewashing of Christianity. It sure as hell wasn’t discrimination. Students were still welcome to use the space to pray, and the school could always make bibles (and other religious books) available to students who need them.
The only thing that was happening was that the school was no longer treating Christianity as the default religion on campus.
Naturally, many Christians got angry. There was a Change.org petition to keep the cross right where it is… even though the creator of the petition was completely ignorant of the law.
There was also this guy:
Randall Christy, founder of The Gospel Station Network based in Ada, told the Tulsa World: “It’s time for Christian people to take a stand for our history and heritage.”
“The idea that the cross excludes people is not true — it’s the opposite. The cross represents that all are welcome, that people of all walks of life are loved by God.”
That’s a lie. The symbol that says “Accept our prophet’s divinity or you’ll burn in Hell for eternity” is not, in fact, welcoming to everyone.
This is the same school that has already been warned by the Freedom From Religion Foundation about its “sacred music department,” which promotes specifically religious music (and not in some academic way).
So you had to hand it to the administrators. They screwed up in the past, and they were finally fixing their mistakes.
That is, until today.
“We moved too quickly,” said Katricia Pierson, ECU president. “We regret not taking time to pause and thoughtfully consider the request and the results of our actions on all of the students, faculty and community members who we serve.”
Pierson said initially the university removed some items to show support for all cultures and religious beliefs. The chapel is used for various religions, student clubs and events.
“This requires a more thoughtful and deliberate approach to the request,” Pierson said. “That will be our next step.”
No one has a problem with the school thinking through their next steps, but the end result is going to be the same. AU didn’t send a letter out of spite. They sent it because they already did the research and they know the law.
The school can get all the advice it wants but the longer they prolong this decision — and if they make the foolish move of keeping everything as is — they are inviting a lawsuit they will inevitably lose.
That would be bad for students, faculty members, and the community at large. Pierson may want to avoid backlash from the Christian Right, but she ought to pay more attention to those who actually understand the law.