While the state’s attorney general and lawyers with a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group fight over whether religious symbols should be allowed at an East Central University chapel, some of the leaders of Ada’s faith-based community are weighing in on the controversy.
The controversy began June 20, when ECU officials received a legal demand letter from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The letter indicated the group had received a complaint from a local individual alleging the cross atop the Kathryn P. Boswell Memorial Chapel, and the iconography contained therein, violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The group demanded the items be removed and gave the university 30 days to respond.
University officials initially responded by saying they would remove the cross and other items inside the chapel. But after significant public outcry, the university reversed course, saying it would not take any further action until a committee was formed to explore the issue and make a recommendation to ECU President Katricia Pierson. Before Pierson could form the committee, however, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter stepped in and took control of the matter, saying his office would “vigorously defend” the chapel.
Area religious leaders have largely condemned the letter, with many viewing the complaint and the efforts of Americans United as a direct assault on Christianity by outside agitators.
Union Valley Baptist Church Pastor Randall Christy took to the chapel steps June 30 to urge area residents gathered in support of the chapel to contact pro-faith advocacy groups and state officials, urging them to take action.
“There’s a movement in America to do away with the cross from public view,” Christy said.
Recalling his time as a student at ECU, Christy said the chapel was never intended to be explicitly used by Christians.
“This is a historic building that was donated by a family with private funds for the purpose of having a place for prayer for all people,” Christy said. “I went to school here and many people went to school here, long before I did … and I think we all know that this place is open to all people of all walks of life and all faiths, and always has been.”
Christy said he believed some people object to the presence of the cross because they do not understand its meaning.
“There’s evidently a lot of people that believe the cross is excluding them, and it’s our job to let them know that’s not the case,” Christy said. “The cross is inviting them, and this prayer place — Jesus said, ‘My house will be a place of prayer for all people.’
“That’s what we believe because Jesus said it, and that’s what this was built for. The Boswell family built this chapel in memory of Mrs. Boswell because that’s how she believed.”
To vociferous support and applause, Christy warned the crowd that they must stand up for their beliefs.
“It takes a Christian standing up before things can change. We don’t have to have violent riots. We just stand up peaceably and tell people we care,” Christy said. “I know that this is just one cross. It’s a small cross on a small chapel, but it signifies that if we don’t take a stand for the small things, then pretty soon we’ll lose the big things.”
First Lutheran Church Pastor Gary Brandt described the matter as a “very sad situation” and echoed Christy’s concerns.
“Why should thousands of Christians in Ada and Pontotoc County cater to the whims of a few, if there’s no violation of the First Amendment?” Brandt asked. “To my knowledge, there are no chapel services held on campus. No one is commanded to enter the chapel or to read the Holy Bible or to worship any God.”
Brandt said he spoke with an individual he would not identify who expressed frustration with what he perceived to be a one-way street when it comes to tolerance.
“One person told me, ‘If the cross comes down, the rainbows on campus need to come down!’” Brandt said. “(And) he emphasized, ‘You can’t have it both ways! Why do Christians have to tolerate non-Christian activities, but non-Christians have no tolerance for us, our beliefs and one simple cross on a building?’”
Brandt questioned whether how the issue is resolved at ECU would have consequences for other regional universities in Oklahoma, citing a recent drop in enrollment at the University of Missouri as fallout from protests on campus in 2015. The protests followed allegations of racism on and around the university campus.
“Look at what is happening at the University of Missouri following the ‘pleasing of a few,’” Brandt said. “Now their freshman enrollment is plummeting, and supposedly gifts by alumni and others have diminished by 72 percent. Bad actions have consequences.”
Brandt also questioned the wisdom of those initiating the complaint forcing the state to defend costly litigation in an era of revenue failures and budget cuts.
“(At) a time when our teachers are needing a pay raise, did those initiating this request ever stop to realize that the state of Oklahoma might be spending large sums of money to defend and protect our Christian freedom — funds which could be put to better use than for legal fees?” Brandt asked.
Brandt said in the end, “Christ will reign.”
“For now, we pray that we stand firm in the faith, receiving endurance to persevere inspired by hope in our Lord, Jesus Christ,” Brandt said.
First United Methodist Church Pastor Brian Matthews urged people not to have “knee jerk reactions” to what he described as a complicated issue.
“There’s at least a side of me that’s reticent to say anything because I have mixed emotions,” Matthews said. “On the one hand, if the Supreme Court decides that having public funding in any way supporting religious causes — if they are clear that this would be in violation of that, well then you have to comply with what the Supreme Court says.
Matthews likened the issue to a recent “brouhaha” over a statue of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol, saying he believed the issue to be “much ado about nothing.”
“The bottom line for me is that it just doesn’t affect me that much,” Matthews said. “They’re not coming after a church. They’re not telling any religious group on campus that they can’t still be a religious group on campus.”
Matthews said he would prefer not to see the cross removed, but understands that ECU officials must comply with the law.
“I think it’s a shame that a small handful of people or maybe one person who has a personal ax to grind could create such a major disturbance, but that’s the way America runs. We tend to be a society that looks out for the underdog or the minority,” Matthews said. “You don’t want to damage the institution or the students when it’s not a religious institution (to begin with).”
Matthews said he understands the strong reaction to the controversy.
“It’s a complicated issue,” Matthews said. “(When) people hear anything they perceive to be an attack on religion they get up in arms, and I’m not so sure that’s a good reaction.”
While the emotional reaction is understandable, Matthews said, he hopes people understand that ECU officials cannot respond emotionally.
“To me, the most important thing is to not just have a knee-jerk reaction but to truly understand the issue from every side, instead of reacting from an emotional standpoint,” Matthews said. “There are some potentially serious legal issues that have to be addressed, even if we don’t like it. You have to follow the law.”