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Occidental Faculty Seeks Removal of Crosses

June 04, 1987|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | Times Staff Writer

Occidental College faculty members are pressing for removal of two 35-foot-high iron crosses on exterior walls of the campus chapel as part of an effort to fully secularize the school.

"It's not a rejection of Christianity or an anti-religious move," said the Rev. Doug Gregg, campus chaplain, a Protestant who supports the removal. "It's simply one of public presentation . . . an honesty and fairness issue."

Gregg is part of a large group of Occidental teachers who support a recent faculty resolution against denominational displays at the 100-year-old liberal arts college.

Occidental College was founded in 1887 by members of the Presbyterian Church. Its religious affiliation was dissolved in 1912, just before the campus moved to its Eagle Rock campus. Nevertheless, the 23-year-old chapel was built at the campus entrance with crosses on the building's north and south walls.

Displaying crosses on the walls of Margaret Brown Herrick Memorial Chapel threatens Occidental's ideals of diversity, John Swift, an English professor, told his colleagues during the recent faculty meeting.

"As it implies one approved faith, so it undermines the principle of community by quietly excluding those outside that faith," Swift said.

Campus Rabbi Michael Perelmuter agrees. "A decision to take them down would be almost a symbolic gesture . . . respect for religious pluralism," he said.

The faculty resolution, submitted to the Occidental Board of Trustees, calls for removal of the exterior crosses "as soon as is prudent," and no later than Sept. 1.

However, Occidental President Richard C. Gilman called the timing unrealistic because "this is a matter about which many constituencies--particularly alumni, trustees and benefactors--would have some comment and concern."

Gilman said trustees will discuss the issue no sooner than the board's quarterly meeting in October. Meanwhile, he said, he expects the chairman of the board to appoint a committee to study the issue.

Gilman declined to say whether he favors the faculty resolution.

Dale Wright, dean of Occidental's religious-study program, said some faculty members worry that removal of the crosses would erase evidence of Occidental's Christian heritage. But he said most of the faculty members agree that the college's past would continue to be represented in the design of the chapel, which was built in the shape of a cross. Additionally, an abstract cross is built into the main stained-glass window on the west side of the chapel, Gregg said. The window is not addressed in the April 29 faculty resolution.

The exterior crosses have sparked a low-key debate among faculty members during the past decade, and have "always been an issue" among Jewish students, Perelmuter said. Until this year, however, there had been no formal action by teachers opposed to the crosses.

The faculty resolution also requests removing the word "chapel" from the building's name, changing it to Margaret Brown Herrick Memorial Interfaith Center. It also calls for creating a committee to ensure religious diversity at the college.

Faculty members voted 50 to 5 in favor of the resolution, with three abstentions, Swift said.

Most of Occidental's 1,600 students are Protestants, according to Gregg, a minister in the United Church of Christ. But the student body also includes Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others, he said. The chapel is open to all religious groups, and is used for a variety of social and cultural functions. Now, however, only Protestant groups use it for worship, Gregg said.

Occidental's student government has not taken a stand on the crosses. But John Wickham, 22, a senior and editor of the college newspaper, The Occidental, said he thinks that will change soon.

"I have a feeling it will be a hot issue next term," he said.

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