I while back I put up a post about how an American donor, Michael McCracken, wanted to give $12,500 to Purdue University’s School of Mechanical Engineering, with the donation to be marked by a plaque that read as follows (my emphasis):
To those who seek to better the world through the understanding of God’s physical laws and innovation of practical solutions. In honor of Dr. William ‘Ed’ and Glenda McCracken.
As I noted, Purdue rejected the plaque. But it didn’t do so for principled reasons. Purdue is a public university, and such a plaque would violate the U.S.’s First Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the entanglement of church and state. But Purdue rejected the plaque not because of that, but because they recognized that they’d get entangled in expensive legal battles with First-Amendment boosters—battles that would cost far more than the original $12,500 donation. McCracken’s lawyer vowed to litigate the issue, saying the following:
“The university is essentially giving voices that would ban even private references to ‘God’ a heckler’s veto here,” Kelner said. “In so many words, the statement suggests that Dr. McCracken’s pledge was not large enough to justify the hassle of defending his speech in court. But, of course, it is precisely the university’s decision to violate Dr. McCracken’s First Amendment rights that would lead to potentially lengthy and expensive litigation.”
Now, according to Thursday’s Exponent, the Purdue student daily newspaper, the issue has been settled. But not settled well: there will be one plaque (my emphasis), and then a disclaimer plaque:
McCracken will be able to honor his parents, as well as mention God, with language that specifies the statement is from the viewpoint of the McCrackens and not the University.
The revised language reads as follows: “Dr. Michael McCracken: ‘To all those who seek to better the world through the understanding of God’s physical laws and innovation of practical solutions.’ Dr. Michael and Mrs. Cindy McCracken present this plaque in honor of Dr. William ‘Ed’ and Glenda McCracken and all those similarly inspired to make the world a better place.”
However, the University will be adding an additional plaque accompanying McCracken’s which will clarify that his words are not the speech of Purdue and that the University is aware of its neutrality obligations by law.
Everyone seems happy with this resolution:
With the support of the legal counsel at the Liberty Institute and Covington & Burling LLP, McCracken was able to avoid this legal crossfire while still upholding his religious convictions.
“Our Founding Fathers understood the importance of freedom of speech and religious freedoms, yet recognized their dependence on God. In a society that now seems to fear even mentioning God, I hope that we can remember what this great nation was founded upon and for which tens of thousands have died,” McCracken wrote.
First of all, the First Amendment prohibits mentioning our dependence on God, although it’s made its way (illegally, I think) into our Pledge of Allegiance and our currency. Further, this “great nation” was founded not on belief in God, but belief in democracy and religious freedom (which also meant freedom not to be religious). The most important founding fathers were either agnostics or deists, and “deists” back then were probably equivalent to what “agnostics” or “atheists” are. It wouldn’t do in 18th-century America to call yourself an atheist. But to claim that this great nation was founded upon religious principles is to grossly distort history.
Second, there’s no substantive difference between the original and the second plaque, except for the clarification that the words are those of McCracken’s. The university hoped to get itself out of hot water by nothing that it didn’t endorse the sentiments.
Finally, I’m not so sure that this settles all the legal issues, as it still allows God to be mentioned (and as a being responsible for physical laws) in a public university, with a lame and obvious plaque that the words are those of the donor. Just as the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History simply deep-sixed a donor’s plaque referring to animals as “God’s creatures,” so should Purdue deep-six a plaque referring to nature’s regularities as “God’s physical laws.”
To see why this compromise solution is problematic, imagine someone donating money for other public facilities, like courthouses or elementary schools, and then insisting that the facilities post the palpably false statement that morality or science or whatever are “gifts of God.” Then the courthouse or school simply adds a disclaimer plaque saying that those words aren’t theirs and they’re cognizant (as they damn well better be!) of obeying the Constitution. That wouldn’t fly, so why would it fly in a public university? There seems to be some feeling afoot that public universities are somehow Constitutionally different from public secondary schools or other public institutions. They aren’t.
What this could lead to is a proliferation of pro-religious and anti-religious signs, all “neutralized” with one disclaimer. Imagine if there were a Muslim and an atheist donor to Purdue who insisted on the following signs being put up to acknowledge their donation:
“Mr. Sam Nogod: ‘To all those who seek to better the world by accepting materialism and naturalism as the basis of science, and rejecting the notion that God or any supernatural force controls or helps us better understand the laws of physics.'”
“Mr. Theodore Bear Aziz: ‘To all those who seek to better the world by recognizing its laws as those being divinely instituted by Allah and conveyed by the prophet Muhamed, blessed be their names.'”
Then, nearby, there’s a plaque saying that those are the words of the donors and Purdue recognizes its Constitutional duties.
Do you suppose that the University would let that stand for a minute? Or that there wouldn’t be a huge outcry from Christians?
The solution to this issue is to remove all religious sentiments from public institutions—not to allow them to proliferate and then somehow render them “Constitutional” with a disclaimer plaque. That way lies madness—and that tacit endorsement of religion.