William & Mary sued for removing chapel cross

Thursday, February 15, 2007

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — A graduate of the College of William and Mary’s law
school has sued to demand that a brass cross be returned to permanent display on
the altar of the campus chapel.

George R. Leach contends that the removal of the cross restricts the practice
of religion, violating the First Amendment because governments can’t prohibit
individuals from practicing religion. He filed the lawsuit last week in U.S.
District Court in Norfolk against William and Mary President Gene Nichol and the
school’s Board of Visitors.

Leach, of James City County, is a 1975 law school graduate who lost his law
license in 2003 after fraudulently seeking and taking the proceeds of a lawsuit
involving a dead client, according to Virginia State Bar records.

Leach told the Daily Press of Newport News for a Feb. 13 story that he
was working through the courts to clear his name and would be practicing law
soon. He declined to comment further.

The lawsuit also calls for the chapel’s hours to be extended to whenever the
college’s library is open and for a Bible to be displayed on the altar.

The school cannot comment on pending litigation, William and Mary spokesman
Brian Whitson told the Associated Press on Feb. 13.

Nichol decided to remove the cross last fall to make the chapel welcoming to
students of all faiths. The 18-inch brass cross now stands on the altar on
Sundays and can be returned by request at other times.

A suit filed against the college would be frivolous and unsuccessful, said
Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.

Removing a cross from the altar isn’t denying a student’s right to practice
his or her religion, as long as the chapel is open to all, Haynes said.

“The university has a right to use that space however it wishes,” he said. “The First Amendment doesn’t require that the university maintain a chapel. On the contrary, the First Amendment prohibits a public university from promoting religion. By removing the cross, university officials may be attempting to make the chapel more inclusive, consistent with their obligation to guard religious freedom for all.”

Founded as an Anglican institution in 1693, the school became public in

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