Move it, move on: ECU’s public cross in an age of austerity

ECU's public cross
(Brad Holt [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

This year, Oklahoma earned another shameful distinction as the national leader in cuts to higher education. The Legislature’s latest corporate-sponsored shortfall continued a five-year trend of shrinking revenue across the state’s university systems, with community colleges and regional schools sporting the most gruesome wounds from a 17.8 percent slash.

East Central University, the four-year public college anchoring the town of Ada, is one of those schools. But it wasn’t the elimination of education programs and faculty and staff positions — or its abrupt withdrawal from the University Center of Southern Oklahoma in Ardmore — that spurred the community to action. It was the threatened removal of ECU’s public cross displayed on the taxpayer-funded campus.

A Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State requested the removal of the religious icon in June. In a letter to ECU President Katricia Pierson, Americans United representatives argued that the cross adorning a donated campus chapel — along with the Bibles and Christian altar inside — violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and must be removed under penalty of law. An attorney for Americans United was cited in a story published July 7 that the organization received a complaint from someone in Ada.

The university initially announced it would comply with the nonprofit’s request but soon back-peddled under pressure from residents as a fiery Facebook post June 29 from local pastor, activist and Christian media company CEO Randall Christy began to make the rounds. An excerpt:

I told KXII today for tonights 6pm news “It’s time for Christian people to take a stand for our history and heritage. The idea that the cross excludes people is not true…its the opposite. The cross represents that all are welcome, that people of all walks of life are loved by God.

I urge Governor Fallin to stop this removal of the cross until all legal options can be examined. And I encourage Christians to immediately make your voices heard on this matter. ECU administration is not the enemy here. It’s outside forces at work to force this action upon our local university.”

The banner below [the steeple] says its Your Future Your Choice…. but I guess that doesn’t apply to Christians… only to leftist liberals who hate the cross. I’m fired up about this, how bout you???

Long-distance lobbying touches nerve with locals

Folks, it turns out, were fired up. As of Monday, Christy’s post had about 1,300 comments, most of which frame the issue as a symptom of unambiguous social collapse. Some of the more troubling feedback entertains subtle and not-so-subtle fantasies of violence against an imagined horde of Muslims and militant atheists. Others misconstrue the concept of public space, seeing the religious items’ potential removal as a threat to individual expression instead of an equal protection for all. Most of the comments are, of course, animated by genuine concern from decent and reasonable people who feel marooned in a culture turning away from God.

While some indefensible reactions are colored by a potent and disturbing Islamophobia, it doesn’t take much of a leap to understand why emotions run so high around the issue. Even if we recognize the unconstitutionality of state-sanctioned religious speech on a campus funded by taxpayers — where people of all faiths, and people of no faith, come to reap the benefits of their public investment — it’s easy to see why someone might feel like their religion is under attack when lobbyists 1,300 miles away demand that its most meaningful symbol be hacked from the top of a steeple.

Satanists have it figured out

The tactics of groups like Americans United, however well-intentioned, are glossed in the sterile, bureaucratic legalism that has made out-of-touch liberals objects of scorn for many in the middle of the country and beyond. It sounds counter intuitive, but maybe Satanists would have been better at winning hearts and minds on the issue. They would, at least, throw the true conflict into sharper relief. The Satanic Temple (a non-theistic advocacy group whose members don’t actually worship the devil) understands that the real fight for freedom from religion in public life won’t be won on technicality. That’s why they agitate for monuments to Satanism as a counter punch to public endorsements of religion, like their famous response to the illegally displayed and ill-fated Ten Commandments monument on the lawn of the Oklahoma State Capitol. This strategy embodies the old creative-writing workshop cliché: Show, don’t tell.


Ten Commandments: Reactions spur moral discussion by Gary Peluso-Verdend

There’s nothing wrong with an out-of-state advocacy group organizing for the removal of public-facing religious items on the grounds that it violates federal law, but that process understandably feels bloodless and unconvincing to many Okies. On the other hand, when Satanists lay the same claim to public space as Christians, the baked-in problem with public religious expression rises vividly into view: If you think Christian icons belong on public property, then you must by default argue in favor of special treatment for Christians. The Satanic Temple forces that argument into the light.

The state needs revenue, not culture wars

The cross should come down. The Constitution, in all its binding and bloodless legalism, requires that. Let the religious object welcome people at one of the three university-affiliated Christian student centers flanking campus: the ECU Baptist Student Union, or the Wesley Center, or the Z-Tree Christian Student Center. (All three sit across the street from campus, and two are fewer than 200 feet apart from each other.) The religious items must go because public education is a public good offered in a public space, and we have to treat it that way.

This isn’t the hill I want to die on — and if you care about public education, and this university in particular, then you shouldn’t want to die on it either — but with Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter vowing to “defend the religious freedom of Oklahomans” against threats from Americans United, it doesn’t look like we’ll have much of a choice. We are sadly doomed to waste more time and money on this fight, despite the fact that it will do nothing to improve the lives of students, faculty and staff at a university in desperate need of revenue.

I was once an ECU Tiger, and I have friends and family members who study there now. I want to see the university succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and the only way that can happen is if we recognize that we are bound together by our shared investment in its health and longevity. Let’s move the cross and get to work pressuring lawmakers to fund our universities with both hands. Let’s turn down the noise of the culture war and turn up our demand for recurring revenue. Let’s lower the cross and raise the gross production tax. Let’s move it, and move on, together.