ADA, Okla. – East Central University officials have reversed plans to remove the cross from the campus chapel after receiving widespread backlash.
Earlier this week, university officials received a letter from attorneys with the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, insisting the crosses, Bibles and other religious symbols at the campus chapel items violate federal law.
“We have received a complaint that East Central University’s Kathryn P. Boswell Memorial Chapel has permanent religious iconography on display,” the letter states. “These displays include Latin crosses on the top of and inside the building, Bibles, and a Christian altar. 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. Please remove or cover the religious displays and items.”
At first, university officials responded, saying they planned remove the items.
“We discussed (the matter) with ECU’s executive council and with the general counsel of the Regional University System of Oklahoma and we are responding appropriately,” ECU President Dr. Katricia Pierson said in a statement released Thursday. “ECU is doing its best to follow the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution.”
“We will continue to use the building as we always have, for all faiths,” Pierson continued. “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. There were only a few items inside the building and we are looking at the feasibility of removing the cross on the steeple, but need to respond to the request for removal of religious icons from the chapel. We are exploring options for preserving the items.”
Some in the community voiced outrage over the university’s decision.
“It’s very disturbing to me and I just really believe that Christians need to rise up against this kind of thing in America,” Randall Christy told KXII.
Christy said that he thinks people misunderstand the meaning of the cross.
“The cross actually is welcoming everybody, everyone is welcome…of all faiths, of all colors all races everything,” he said.
While some locals in the area are upset with the decision, others say they understand.
“It makes sense for the college if they have to,” ECU student Chron Wallace said. “I wouldn’t want to get sued millions of dollars so it, kind of makes sense.”
However, after receiving backlash, university officials said they will hold off on removing the religious icons for now.
“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.”
Pierson said the university will immediately begin convening a committee of students, faculty and community members who represent a diversity of viewpoints to study the issue.
“ECU is committed to diversity and welcomes different perspectives. This is an opportunity to have a thoughtful dialogue,” adds Pierson. “ECU will not take further action, either by putting back the removed items, or by removing further artifacts, including the cross on the steeple, until the committee has had ample time to discuss and establish policies or guidelines for religious expressions in the art, history, architecture, study and areas of worship on campus.”
“Any further actions will be taken after our conversations with the committee and our valued community of students, faculty, alumni and Ada citizens,” Pierson said.
“Only moments ago officials at East Central University rescinded their decision, at least for now, to take down the cross from the campus chapel,” said Rep. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore. “While I applaud that decision, I believe it is imperative for those that are charged with leading Oklahoma’s universities to understand that threats of lawsuits should never dictate our Oklahoma values. There are things worth fighting for. This is certainly one of them.”