After receiving a letter from Americans United in June informing them that a big cross atop their chapel and Bibles inside it violate church-state separation, Eastern Central University (ECU) officials in Ada, Okla., decided to form a committee to review the situation.
“Governmental entities are prohibited from taking any action that communicates ‘endorsement of religion,’” AU’s letter read. “Governmental bodies and public employees must not communicate religious endorsement to members of the public by displaying religious items or messages.”
Although AU did not publicize the letter, it made its way into the news, and some people were not pleased. We’ve received many hateful emails, social media messages and phone calls since – and they are still pouring in. Yesterday, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, clearly seeing an opportunity to grandstand, sent a letter to ECU officials that accused AU of misleading the school and inviting officials there to refer the situation to his office. In a July 6 statement, ECU announced that it was handing the case over to Hunter’s office.
“I will not allow guile and intimidation to dictate how Oklahoma’s public universities meet their legal obligations,” Hunter wrote in a letter.
The thing is, AU learned about this from a member of the community who was rightfully concerned about the cross, which is permanently erected atop the chapel, and Bibles at the Kathryn P. Boswell Memorial Chapel being non-inclusive to other religious and non-religious members of the community. AU did not send the letter to intimidate or “dictate” how Oklahomans live their lives. An Oklahoma resident was concerned about inclusivity since the cross is an exclusively Christian symbol.
AU’s letter cites a case called ACLU v. City of St. Charles, which notes that the Latin cross is “the principal symbol of Christianity as practiced in this country today.”
These don't belong on public property.
Continued AU’s letter, “As a result, courts have repeatedly prohibited governmental bodies from displaying Latin crosses on public land.”
But many people criticizing AU’s position didn’t get the gist of it. In a recent op-ed in the American Spectator, a right-wing website, the author, Thomas J. Craughwell, attempted to defend his opinion that ECU should be keeping the cross and Bibles on its chapel by talking about how his neighbors’ differing religious displays don’t offend him.
“It is a lexical absurdity to try to make ‘different’ a synonym for ‘offensive,’ much less ‘unconstitutional,” Craughwell writes.
This argument, like many of the messages we’re receiving, falls short of logic and a basic understanding of the First Amendment. Religious symbols on private property such as a home are not a problem; it is a problem when such symbols appear on government buildings because in that case the state is endorsing and favoring a religion for everyone. The government has no right to do that.
The bottom line is that public universities should be a welcoming place for people of all faiths or none. These taxpayer-funded institutions should not feature religious symbols that clearly prefer one religion. We appreciate the university’s review of the issue and hope officials there make the right choice and remove the cross and Bibles at its chapel.