2007 - 2008: Former W&M President Nichol and the Wren Chapel cross
Please express your dismay...outrage...concern about the denial of W&M President Gene Nichol's contract renewal by the William & Mary Board of Visitors in mid-February. President Nichol elicited controversy by removing from daily display a cross donated in the 1930s that had been on the altar of the Wren Chapel. History buffs indicate that chapels from that period would not have displayed a cross. Nichol initiated the change to make the chapel more inclusive for the university's diverse enrollment. The decision drew national media attention, and the cross eventually was restored to permanent display in a Plexiglas-like case in the chapel. The College of William and Mary is a public university.
The excerpt below sums it all up...
The Cross was not an original part of the Wren Chapel,” said Professor David Holmes of the College’s Religion department. Holmes went on to describe the fact that the chapel was a replica of an 18th century chapel, which would not have had a cross placed in it. The cross was not added to the Wren Chapel until 1930, he noted. Holmes also pointed out, and was echoed by others, that as a State institution supported by tax money from those of many backgrounds, the College has an obligation to remain religiously neutral.
On behalf of the Virginia Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I am writing to register strong support for renewal of President Gene Nichol’s contract. An educational institution with the worldwide pre-eminence of the College of William and Mary deserves the continued direction of a bona fide leader. While there are many who pretend to be leaders—and take the easy way out—the real leaders are those who have the courage to make the hard decisions. These are the actions which often times don’t win popularity contests—but are morally correct. President Nichol’s actions vis-à-vis the cross in the Wren Chapel should have earned him universal accolades, rather than widespread disdain.
As Margaret Thatcher observed, "...one cannot hold this office [Chancellor of the College of William and Mary] without feeling an affinity with those giants of the past who were associated with this College, and whose leadership helped to found this great country." The tallest giant of them all is Thomas Jefferson, whose statue stands tall on campus and whose ghost remains in the Wren Building, where he boarded as a student. His Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is considered by many to be the inspiration for the First Amendment’s religion clauses. Further, it was he who wrote in an 1802 letter to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist Association that the First Amendment created a “wall of separation between church and state.”
As President of a public university, funded in part by taxpayer dollars, President Nichol’s actions honor one of the bedrocks of our democracy, i.e., the separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson would indeed be proud-- and if alive today, would certainly be another voice urging the renewal of President Nichol’s contract for another term.
Thank you very much for allowing input into your decision-making process.
Leslie A. Tourigny, President
Virginia Chapter Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Our members send letters:
President Nichol should remain the leader of the William and Mary College. He has the support of the Kenley family. As long time Virginians, we are proud of our past, including religious freedom and the diversity that has ever been part of our heritage. Challenges, yes, He has a difficult job to be sure. President Nichol is with you to chart the course of the future of William and Mary, respecting the past and meeting today’s and tomorrows opportunities. William and Mary College has the support of the Kenley family.
Sincerely and respectfully,
James Bunting Kenley M.D. MPH
I am writing to you to express my strong support for President Nichol. I know that there is concern in some quarters about his decision on the Wren cross. President Nichol's decision was in total agreement with the thinking of our country's founders, especially one of William and Mary's most distinguished graduates, Thomas Jefferson. Both Jefferson and James Madison were adamant that there should be separation of church and state and were responsible for the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on which the First Amendment to our national Constitution is based.
How ironic it is that President Nichol is being taken to task for upholding one of Virginia's proudest contributions to American democracy.
Thank you for providing the opportunity to offer comments about the renewal of President Nichol’s employment contract. As Williamsburg residents for more than 25 years and with family William and Mary alumni, we are friends and neighbors of the college. We strongly support President Nichol’s leadership for all that he has done for the college and our community. We have heard bravos from those directly associated with the college for his excellent performance demonstrating both courage and wisdom.
As American and architectural history buffs, we are well aware of the significance of the College of William and Mary and our founding fathers in this community. We applaud President Nichol’s action in restoring the Wren Chapel to its historic authenticity, while opening its doors to welcome all in our diverse community – this epitomizes leadership. We value tradition and historical accuracy. We know that Wren Building dates to the late 17th century and as such would not have displayed a cross; further, that the so-called “Wren Cross” either was donated by Bruton Parish or left behind by a youth group in 1931; and foremost, that William and Mary is a public institution with the Wren Building being an academic building, housing faculty offices on the third floor, and classrooms throughout the building.
In light of all of the above, we strongly support renewal of President Nichol’s contract on the grounds of both historical accuracy and understanding that W&M is a public institution. He asked the right questions and came up with an equitable solution to allow all parts of the campus to be truly open to all.
Our Founders knew that mixing religion and government only caused civil strife, inequality and very often violence in pluralistic societies. The widespread intolerant reaction to President Nichol’s action demonstrated this. Like our founders, President Nichol’s action has extended religious liberty within our community. Of course this being Williamsburg, we must close with a 1799 quote from Jefferson, “I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.”
Rubyjean and Richard Gould
Issues that members followed during the 2008 Virginia General Assembly session included proposed constitutional amendment change enabling religious activities on public sites including schools, legislative initiatives for school voucher programs and constitutional amendments to ban gay marriages. Other activities included monitoring local government activities.
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