WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – A Catholic, Vince Haley often went to Mass at the College of William and Mary's historic chapel as an undergraduate in the 1980s.
Also a Catholic, school President Gene R. Nichol often slips into the 120-seat chapel alone at night to think in the quiet.
Both men agree the chapel is a sacred space meaningful to students, alumni, faculty and staff who use it for secular school events — starting with freshman orientation programs — as well as weddings and religious services. They clash, though, over what to do with an unadorned, 18-inch brass cross that had been displayed on the altar since about 1940.
Nichol unexpectedly created a ruckus in October when he ordered the cross removed to make the chapel more welcoming to students of all faiths. Previously, the cross could be removed by request; now it can be returned by request.
"It's the right thing to do to make sure that this campus is open and welcoming to everyone," Nichol said in an interview. "This is a diverse institution religiously, and we want it to become even more diverse."
But Haley — and more than 10,000 supporters who have signed his online petition at www.savethewrencross.org since last fall — want Nichol to put the cross back on the altar permanently. Since Jan. 31, more than 1,100 students, alumni and others have signed an online petition in support of Nichol at www.thepetitionsite.com.
"The message that is sent by removing the cross is that we no longer value that part of our heritage, and that's a mistake," said Haley, research director at the American Enterprise Institute for former House speaker Newt Gingrich. "It reflects a view that religious symbols — religion and the public expression thereof — are somehow an obstacle for us to get along with one another."
William and Mary, the nation's second-oldest university after Harvard, was founded by royal charter in 1693 with a mission that included training Anglican ministers. The chapel is a wing of the Wren Building, which the university says is the country's oldest academic building in continuous use, built between 1695 and 1699.
William and Mary has been a public school since 1906. Famous alumni include President Thomas Jefferson and "Daily Show" comedian Jon Stewart.
Haley said Nichol should not have acted without consulting students, faculty and alumni, and that the decision smacks of liberal "efforts to rid the public landscape of religious symbols."
The issue has drawn the attention of prominent conservatives including Gingrich, who recently weighed in with an opinion column, and author Dinesh D'Souza, who came to campus to argue for returning the cross.
Debating D'Souza was religious studies professor David Holmes, who pointed out that the chapel, built in 1732, had no cross for more than 200 years. This cross arrived when a nearby church was being renovated and remained at the school.
Nichol, who became president in 2005, said perhaps 20 people mentioned concerns about the chapel's cross to him as he went around the country during his first year and a half in the job, talking to people about the university.
"Does that marvelous place belong to everyone, or is it principally for our Christian students?" Nichol said. "Do we actually value religious diversity, or have we determined, because of our history, to endorse a particular religious tradition to the exclusion of others?"
Nichol also received a letter, dated Oct. 4, in which the writer suggested removing the cross because "it feels uncomfortable to have 'our' chapel with such a sectarian symbol." The school release the letter with the writer's name redacted.
The school declined to release other correspondence to and from Nichol about the cross because university presidents' working papers are exempt from such requests under state law.
Nichol, who issued his order by e-mail, said that perhaps he could have handled the matter a bit differently.
In December, he responded to initial criticism by returning the cross to the chapel on Sundays, and he recently created a committee that will examine the role of religion at public universities — and the use of Wren Chapel.
Haley and his supporters — including some alumni who have vowed to withhold donations until the cross is permanently restored — want the school's Board of Visitors, which meets Thursday and Friday, to overrule Nichol.
The board's agenda will not be available until midweek, a school spokesman said.
So far, the board has deferred to Nichol's judgment. The student assembly defeated a resolution to return the cross, and faculty and Campus Ministers United, Jewish and Christian clergy who advise campus religious organizations, endorsed Nichol's decision.
Some students say alumni and people with no connection to the university are creating the controversy.
"Most of the students don't even care about it very much," said Jake Reeder, 19, of Charlottesville. "I don't see what the big deal is about it being there and not being there, especially since it was only put in, what, 70 years ago."
Student Clare Ngomba said that at first she was shocked by Nichol's action because she is a Christian but that she came to agree with him.
"Because we're a public college, it's a better thing so that people are more open and more welcomed into the community," said Ngomba, 19, of Fredericksburg.
Ro'ee Mor, a student from Israel, said that as an Orthodox Jew, he was uncomfortable when he and other freshmen were taken to the chapel during orientation in August to swear to abide by the school's honor code.
Since the cross's removal, he sometimes goes to the chapel to meditate.
"I feel more an integral part of the community due to this symbolic action," he said, adding, "we need to speak with traditional Christians to make sure that they get something that they want as well."
Kirk Vernegaard, 18, of Dallas, is among more than 500 students who have signed the petition. For him, the issue isn't about religion.
"Basically, I'm concerned about the deterioration of the college's historical and ideological identity," he said. "I'm not necessarily Christian or anything, but I still think political correctness can get out of hand, and I think somewhere we need to draw the line, and I think it's here."
While more than 3,000 alumni have signed the petition, other alumni support Nichol.
Oscar Blayton, the first black person to attend William and Mary as an undergraduate, in the early 1960s, sees having the cross on display all the time as religious bigotry.
"Some of these people that are upset about the cross issue have a notion that it is a predominantly Christian community and Christians have more rights than other people," said Blayton, a Williamsburg lawyer.