Purdue wusses out on God plaque

March 9, 2014 • 9:46 am

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.

54 thoughts on “Purdue wusses out on God plaque

    1. Great suggestion! Let’s collect $12,500 from among the readers here, then test this.

      Someone please set up a donation page, and I will contribute.

      If Purdue rejects “understanding of FSM’s physical laws and innovation of practical solutions”, we can try a few other universities.

  1. The religious people always frame the argument so that “religion is under attack” or “a christian’s freedom of speech rights are being violated”. Just listen to some of the CPAC speeches (e.g. Mike Huckabee) this week to get a taste of that. They have no clue (or choose to ignore) what the Constitution and SCOTUS rulings say about this issue. I hope we get a less conservative SCOTUS someday that can finally set this matter to rest.

  2. You would think they would just reject the 12.5K gift as that is not much money in the scope of Purdue’s budget, not even much with respect to a departmental budget. Someone at Purdue should have just said “no thanks” at the outset.

    Right now, it looks like Purdue is setting the stage for an itemized menu with respect to spirituality and donations.

    12.5K = private citizen mentions God on plaque w/university disclaimer

    17K = private citizen mentions God on plaque, no disclaimer

    25K = Stone-chiseled virgin Mary bricks with portable a-frame legal disclaimer sign guaranteed to be 30ft away.

    50K = Bench on quad, with trinity symbol and secular foot rest

    75K = Bench on quad with God image + trinity symbol, no secular foot rest, but nullfidian peony garden nearby.

    100K = Jesus pagoda with Genesis pendantives at the helm of rationalist long pond and humanist fountain

    150K = Cessna 180 sky writing bible verse with trailing first amendment helicopter

  3. 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.”

    Here is the additional plaque:

    “Purdue doesn’t endorse this McCracken guy, and we’re neutral on this whole religion thing, but we’re taking his money anyway what are you crazy it’s ten grand.”

      1. Jerry doesn’t seem to have “like” buttons, so please record this as my note of appreciation. Perhaps someone could put it on a plaque?

        1. I have carefully inscribed your appreciation on a plaque of my very own and mounted it on my coronary artery.
          If you plan to visit, bring Raquel with you, but leaver her full-size.

    1. I would revise one bit further:

      “Purdue doesn’t endorse this McCracken guy, but we’re taking his money because it is better spent on education than religion.”

  4. As a Purdue alumnus, I’m embarrassed that the University has made this move. It amounts to an endorsement-in-fact of the donors’ goddy statement, reframed to pretend that it’s not an endorsement of religion by this state-supported university and “public actor.” No thoughtful observer is going to be fooled or distracted by the disclaimer, no matter how it’s worded.

    1. Next time Purdue asks you for money, send back a note that you will consider a donation when they face up to their responsibilities under the First Amendment.

  5. I think the donor’s motives deserve to be called into question here: is he not satisfied that he is giving money to the cause of education, and memorializing his parents in the process? If that isn’t enough without inserting some intrusive personal goddery into the process, one has to ask what his motives were in making the donation in the first place.

  6. I imagine the world would have turned into a far more hostile place without Madison & Jefferson. The disestablishment of religion in the US is possibly the the single biggest step in the direction of world peace and something I envy from a UK/European perspective, despite our otherwise more secular society.

    1. Whoa. I just realized that this means Purdue has engaged in antidisestablishmentarianism, a word I try to use when ever I get the chance.

  7. Would they accept a plaque honouring Satan?

    If not, then the plaque is an endorsement and should be taken down.

  8. I whiff the distinctive, nasty stench of accommodation. Loathe though I am to play the “slippery slope” card, because it is usually a red herring tactic favored by the most chickenshit anything-to-get-my-way wing of my conservative countrymen/women …

    … public tax-funded institutions that facilitate display of explicit d*G decrees/iconography act in contradiction to the Establishment Clause. This must never be tolerated, period, and resisted by necessary means until the offending material is removed.

    Maybe McKracken is just a regular joe everyday liberal Christian Presbyterian or Methodist, and not some foam-at-the-mouth ultra-conservative Huckabee/Backmann/Santorum/Palin/Perry/Jindhal, etc etc ad infinitum ad nauseum. Not that I count on that.

    Doesn’t matter if he is only a getting older white guy devout believer, anyway, this is about the university. If Purdue U. sanctions this signage, they grease the skids for theocrats. It is hard for me to believe that they aren’t aware of this.

    Any short term donation benefits realized in the near future will not make the shit Dominionist’s and Reconstructionist’s require them to include in their diet down the road taste like anything other than totalitarian do-what-you’re-told-and-like-it shit, because we define academic freedom now, not you.


  9. 1) Try to please everyone, and you end up pleasing no one;

    2) Try to out-weasel an attorney, and you get your weasel’s clock cleaned.

    1. Which gods — the gods of which religion — would you recognize as the ‘God’ of your (and putatively our) dependency?

      1. I am a Christian, but that is not really relevant to my question, which was about the use of the First Amendment in the Purdue University plaque situation.

          1. Your lack of specificity, Paul, makes it impossible for anyone to know what part of the Establishment Clause you dispute. Please present your claim in writing. Also, please consider this step: after composing your claim, take a few minutes to read the Lemon Test information at the firstamendmentcenter link above.

            It is extremely likely that your particular reservation has already been identified, proposed in a prior action, and subsequently resolved by ruling. If you have some unique new point of contention of merit, however, the Center undoubtedly will be delighted to learn of it, and will greatly appreciate your contribution. I would like to know what it might be, also.

            1. I have no unique point of contention. I was merely expressing a personal opinion, and I am aware of the Lemon Test, etc.

              I’m going to stop posting now because I will otherwise exceed 10% of postings, which runs contrary to Jerry’s new Roolz (see #7).

          2. The First Amewndment reads:”Congress shall make no law respecting an ESTABLISHMENT of religion, or PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

            What does that have to do with a plaque on a wall at Purdue University which happens to mention the word “God”?

  10. Your interpretation of the First Amendment is a bit off. Both of those plaques to naturalism and Islam would be fine if they were supporting the views of an atheist or Muslim. A Christian donor should do his engineering work to the glory of God. Every workbench an altar (Martin Luther). Sorry you don’t agree with that, but that is the way I have practiced my calling (engineering) since I graduated from Purdue in 1982 and 1984 with my Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering. Your calling is biology, practiced to the glory of the god you serve. To each his/her own. This is America, not Amerika.

    1. Did you read the rules? I have to approve all first comments and I don’t check email every minute. So wait before kvetching. In the meantime, since you’re a theist, according to the rules I can ask you, before you post further, to give us the precise evidence that makes you accept God as real. So please provide that evidence before you can post further.

  11. Sorry, I must have clicked twice and got a rejection for “comment already posted.” You can delete the previous comment if you want. Didn’t realize this was a closed forum to theists. Can’t prove the existence of God any more than you can disprove the existence of a Creator. But my proof is logic, the Book of Nature (intricate design of the universe & beauty of a sunrise every morning) AND the testimony of the co-Creator (Jesus Christ) in Matthew 19, referring to Genesis when He created the world with His Father and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament has more manuscript evidence than any other ancient book. My beliefs are entirely reasonable given the evidence He has left for all to see. What is your proof there is no Creator? ….

    1. Logic proves God (or supports it)? How?

      Nature only indicates nature. I think you’re going to have to be more explicit when you invoke the ‘beauty of a sunset,’ since there’s no good reason to assume that our appreciation of our environment is supernatural.

      As for the testimony in the Bible being sufficient to persuade a reasonable skeptic that supernatural events occurred, even human ‘testimony’ today shouldn’t do that — and the Bible is more than a few steps removed from even that.

      Do you think you can formulate your hypothesis a bit more clearly — and give an example of what would persuade you to discard it?

    2. “any more than you can disprove the existence of a Creator”

      Haven’t you been paying attention to the news lately?

      Where was your Creator 0.0000000000000000000000000000000001 s after the Big Bang?


    3. You are conflating some vague inference to a creator, from apparent design in the universe, with a very specific belief in a particular anthropomorphic entity that prohibits one from eating fish on Friday (or whatever your particular set of specific beliefs happen to be).

      I can understand why you might look at the universe and imagine a designer, given that is how artifacts originate on earth, but it is just a misguided analogy. However, the glaring problem with your position (whatever christian variant you support) is that the *specifics* don’t stand out (evidentially) in any way from the specifics of the huge number of other religions. What does stand out though, is that your religion is highly likely to reflect the culture you were born into, and that’s a pretty damning indictment if you think about it.

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