WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue University is under fire after it refused to engrave language about God on a donor’s plaque for fear that it might be considered a government endorsement of religion.
Dr. Michael McCracken and his wife made a donation to the university in 2012, and was asked to provide an inscription for the dedication plaque, which was to be posted at the recently renovated Herrick Laboratories.
“To those who seek to better the world through the understanding of God’s physical laws and innovation of practical solutions,” the plaque was to read. “In honor of Dr. William ‘Ed’ and Glenda McCracken.”
Last October, university officials informed McCracken that it would not be utilizing the submitted language as they wished to avoid the appearance of promoting religion.
McCracken then contacted the Texas-based Liberty Institute, requesting assistance from the Christian legal organization. Local legal office Covington and Burling LLP also became involved. This past week, attorney Robert Kelner sent a letter to Purdue on behalf of McCracken and the organizations representing the donor, noting that the university’s reasoning was flawed.
“It is difficult to imagine that the FirstAmendment permits a private speaker to blaspheme Jesus at length in university spaces, yet simultaneously prohibits the McCrackens from mentioning ‘God’s physical laws’ on a plaque intended to honor Dr. McCracken’s parents,” it read. “By permitting secular expression and expression that portrays deity in a negative context while simultaneously refusing to permit private religious speech, the university has engaged in just the type of “egregious… content discrimination” that constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination.”
Kelner noted that a number of government statements and practices reference God.
“Even if the McCrackens’ plaque were considered speech by the university—which it is not—the plaque’s simple reference to ‘God’s physical laws’ is in line with references to the divine that have survived, or would certainly survive, an Establishment Clause challenge,” the letter continued. “The contested language is similar to the anodyne references printed on money (“In God We Trust”) or intoned before the Supreme Court justices take their seats (“God save … this Honorable Court!”) It also specifically echoes the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, an indisputably secular document also on display at Purdue, that references “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
In response, attorneys for the university again contended that the phrase would be considered government speech, but stated that they desired to continue discussions about the matter.
“We have a great deal of understanding and sympathy for the disappointment of the McCracken family,” legal counsel Steve Schultz wrote in a statement to local television station WLFI. “If we had confidence that the courts would find this private speech as the donor’s counsel argues, then we would agree immediately–and strongly.”
“But given the facts here, our status as a public institution, and the hopelessly muddled state of jurisprudence in this particular area, we could fully expect lengthy and expensive litigation that would wipe out the value of this donation many times over, and we just don’t think that’s advisable for either the donor or the university,” he continued. “Still, we remain open to continued discussions, as we’d much prefer to be in the mode of expressing gratitude, not disagreement, to our donors.”