Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has stepped into a dispute over the display of Christian emblems on a public university campus, declaring the issue a top religious liberty priority. In a July 5 letter to East Central University’s (ECU) Board of Regents, Hunter said the fight could have repercussions beyond the ECU campus and asked administrators to refer all future responses to his office.
For 60 years, the Kathryn P. Boswell Memorial Chapel on the ECU campus in Ada, Okla., has hosted a variety of religious services, concerts and university club meetings, all while a cross stood atop its steeple, and Bibles rested in its pews. But according to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), someone complained that those elements constituted government endorsement of religion. The cross, Bibles and religious icons “do not belong” on the public university campus and must be removed, AU told university administrators in a June letter.
Hunter called the atheist organization’s demands “scare tactics” and promised to defend the university – and the state – from continued legal threats. ECU administrators initially capitulated and began removing religious items from the chapel before public outcry over the demand forced the school to rethink its response.
“We moved too quickly,” said ECU president Katricia Pierson in a June 30 statement. “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.”
Administrators have not said whether they returned the previously removed items to the chapel. But Pierson said the school would convene a committee representing the university’s diverse viewpoints to address the issue.
In his letter to Mark Stansberry, ECU board chairman, Hunter asked the school to forgo those plans. While lauding the reconciliation efforts, Hunter said AU’s implied legal action against the school requires his office to address the matter. Any action by the committee could have “profound” legal implications for the State of Oklahoma and “similarly situated entities,” he said.
Hunter assured Stansberry that neither the Establishment Clause nor case law require a publicly funded entity to purge itself of features related to religious expression or heritage. He called AU’s tactics “misleading” and noted the group’s “selective” citation of cases decided outside Oklahoma’s jurisdiction.
“The highest priority must be placed on ensuring the defense of Oklahomans’ religious freedom under the law,” Hunter wrote.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Bonnie Pritchett writes for WORLD News Service, a division of WORLD Magazine, worldmag.com, based in Asheville. Used with permission.)