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Last October, College of William and Mary President Gene R. Nichol ordered the removal of a cross from the altar of the campus chapel, sparking a controversy among college administrators, faculty, students and alumni. William and Mary’s president banned the cross from daily display to make the chapel more welcoming to visitors of all faiths, but several alumni and students viewed the decision as an affront to religious faith and to the college’s Anglican heritage. The William and Mary cross incident highlights a controversial trend toward inclusiveness that has been the touchstone of legal disputes regarding the role of religious symbols in public life. First Amendment challenges to religious symbols on government property often turn on whether the religious symbol sends a message of exclusion to citizens of other faiths or of no faith. Unlike a sign that can be read and understood, however, this message must be decoded by the judge deciding the dispute. One person’s (or judge’s) passing reminder of the historical significance of religion in a particular community may be another person’s (or judge’s) message of exclusion. William and Mary’s president clearly viewed the cross, even in a chapel, as exclusionary, explaining that it “sends an unmistakable message that the chapel belongs more fully to some of us than to others. That there are, at the college, insiders and outsiders.” As William and Mary discovered, however, a new problem arises upon the removal of the religious symbol: The “insiders” now feel like outsiders based on the deliberate act of removal. Officials may press forward with their inclusive agenda, but often the backlash leaves a community bitterly divided. The College of William and Mary cross incident showcases just how divided we are over the role of religious symbols in public life, but the proposed compromise adopted by its Committee on Religion at a Public University could help bring us together. The ad hoc committee on March 6 proposed that the cross be returned for permanent display in the chapel in a glass case accompanied by a plaque explaining the college’s Anglican roots and its historic connection to the local church that donated the cross. More than 20 years ago, Justice William J. Brennan Jr., in his dissent in Lynch v. Donnelly, contrasted the cr�che in that case with one erected on federal park land adjacent to the White House as part of a display that contained “explanatory plaques” to disclaim any government sponsorship of the religious message. The plaques themselves responded to concerns about inclusiveness: “The sponsors trust that religious believers, non-believers and disbelievers, alike, can set aside all religious differences, and enjoy this National Celebration Event in the Christmas-tide spirit evinced by the central theme of the pageant.” Official religious inclusion signs Outside of the context of litigation, cities are experimenting with official signs to address concerns about inclusiveness. The cover of an August 2006 issue of USA Today featured a picture of a city mayor posing in front of a large sign that reads, “Welcome. We are building an inclusive community.” More than 155 cities have adopted the signs as part of a National League of Cities’ “Partnership for Working Toward Inclusive Communities” initiative, and other cities continue to consider whether to adopt the resolution and erect the sign necessary for membership in the inclusiveness program. Now imagine a sign containing an explicit message of religious inclusiveness. Such a sign might read, “Welcome. We are building an inclusive community of diverse religions, faiths and creeds. There are no outsiders here.” Though the terrain is hazardous, there is more to be gained than lost by innovative attempts to maintain civil peace in disputes over the role of religion in public life. It is quite possible that official religious inclusion signs, like the explanatory plaque proposed for William and Mary’s cross and the sign promoted by the National League of Cities’ initiative, could achieve the goal of making religious minorities, who might otherwise question their place in a community, feel welcome there. Such disclaimers are not likely to ameliorate the concerns of individuals and advocacy groups who have already made up their minds about what religious inclusiveness requires, but that is, well, the point: If religious inclusion signs are successful (both practically and legally), then we may be able to achieve the laudable goal of inclusion under conditions more reasonable than the all-or-nothing terms of the culture war. Lisa Shaw Roy is an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

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