Kevin Zimmerman, a 3rd year graduate student at ISU in Human Development and Family Studies, will make a brief presentation (about 15 min) at our meeting on Sept 17 about the chapel in the Memorial Union (shown here). He has prepared a letter to introduce his ideas, which you may find below.
As Kevin mentions in this letter, this is not the first time that this issue has been raised. In August 2007, Professor Warren Blumenfeld wrote a letter to the Daily (reprinted after Kevin’s letter for your convenience) that caused a minor controversy but did not result in removal of the religious symbols. Some students took the opportunity to respond and express their views (two letters of differing opinions reprinted after Dr. Blumenfeld’s for your convenience, you may find more at the ISU Daily).
Hello members of AAS,
I have arranged with your president to make a brief presentation (about 15 minutes) at your next meeting, Sept. 17th, to see if AAS members would like to get behind an initiative to renovate the chapel on the first floor of the Memorial Union.
I discovered the chapel last week, on Sept. 1st. According to [the ISU website], the chapel is a quiet space for reflection, and also displays symbols of the Christian and Jewish faiths. As I entered the chapel, I first noticed the pews, then the stained glass, and then the prominent wooden cross. Bibles and Christian hymnals were also visible up front. [The website lists Room 3517 as “a more neutral reflection space” but is now only available to lactating women.]
The MU is funded by tuition dollars and state funding. It appears as though ISU, a state-funded educational institution, is supporting one religion, Christianity, over any others by maintaining a chapel on campus. This violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. There is ample legal precedent that a publicly funded institution is forbidden from preferring or endorsing one religion to another or religion over irreligion. Furthermore, Iowa State University claims not to discriminate on the basis of religion, and yet having a chapel that contains pews, a cross, Bibles, and Christian hymnals in a building on campus constitutes discrimination to anyone who is not Christian by non-inclusion. I am not hostile towards religion, but I do think that it is important to support the Constitution.
I would propose that the Chapel space be converted into a space that can be inclusive of the entire student body at ISU. This space could be a more useful to students as a space for additional computers, for example, or some other possible use. The Browsing Library has 10 computers, including one for the attendant, leaving 9 for general use. Of those, three were not working this week, leaving six working computers. When I have sat in the Browsing Library, I have seen many students come in looking for a free computer, and when they did not find one, they either left, or they sat down on one of the chairs or couches and waited for a computer to become available. But I did not see one person enter the chapel.
The Memorial Union was built in 1959, but ISU acquired the building in 2003. I am surprised, however, that the chapel has remained a chapel on state-funded property this long. This is not the first time this concern has been raised. After the issue was raised before, a red curtain was installed that can be drawn to cover the cross and stained glass, although it has always been open when I’ve been in the chapel. I would propose going further than putting up a curtain and remove the cross altogether, as well as the pews, the religious motifs in the stained glass, and the word “chapel” that appears both outside of the chapel and outside the library as part of the name “Browsing Library Chapel.”
I have taken some pictures that provide a virtual tour of the chapel and the religious symbolism there and elsewhere in the MU. I plan to share them with you in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. After the presentation, I would then like to see the interest level of AAS members in assisting to move this issue forward, which may take the form of signing a petition, for example.
I appreciate the work that you do and look forward to seeing you in the Molecular Biology building, rm. 1414 at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 17th.
I apply this analogy of the fish in the water to a situation I have observed from outside the fishbowl while at Iowa State. While walking around the lower level of the Memorial Union, I discovered a chapel, and I decided to walk in to investigate. To my surprise, and quite frankly, shock, I discovered a large Christian cross extending virtually from floor to ceiling in front of the room.
I thought to myself, “What is a Christian cross doing in a publicly supported land grant university? Isn’t this supposed to be a non-denominational space for students and staff to enter for reflection and respite? Does this cross not violate the separation of religion and government clause of the U.S. Constitution by promoting one form of religion over all others? How many Christians who enter this space actually perceived this as unusual or inappropriate on a university campus that purports to welcome students from all walks of life?”
Alexis de Tocqueville, French political scientist and diplomat, traveled across the United States for nine months between 1831 and 1832 conducting research for his epic work, “Democracy in America.” He was astounded to find a certain paradox: On one hand, he observed that the United States promoted itself around the world as a country separating “church and state,” where religious freedom and tolerance were among its defining tenets, but on the other hand, he witnessed that: “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”
He answered this apparent contradiction by proposing that in this country with no officially sanctioned governmental religion, denominations were compelled to compete with one another and promote themselves in order to attract and keep parishioners, thereby making religion even stronger.
Although the government was not supporting Christian denominations and churches, per se, religion to Tocqueville “must be regarded as the first of their political institutions” since he observed the enormous influence churches had on the political process. Although he favored U.S.-style democracy, he found its major limitation to be in its stifling of independent thought and independent beliefs. Basically, in a land that promotes the notion that the majority rules, this effectively silences minorities by what Tocqueville termed the “tyranny of the majority.”
The majority, in religious matters, were adherents to Christian denominations who, therefore, imposed their values and standards upon those who believe otherwise. Tocqueville, like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson before him, advocated for safeguards against such tyrannies to protect minorities from the majorities and to protect the weak from the strong.
I ask, therefore, for us all to truly perceive the nature of the substance that saturates our environment so we can create a campus and a larger society for all to feel safe, supported, and welcomed.
A step in this direction would be to remove the Christian cross from the Memorial Union Chapel and to erect a sign expressing the nondenominational purpose of this space.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld
Multicultural and international curriculum studies
Iowa State University
By Luci Van Scoy
But this is a chapel, for whatever religious beliefs you happen to practice. Despite the ongoing debates over Christianity intruding upon our educational system, a chapel on campus is one place it should actually be present – along with other religions as well.
When the cross was installed in the 1950s, the “tyrannical” majority of Americans were living in fear because of the Cold War. This period of time also presented us with a new phrase to the Pledge of Allegiance, “under God,” just as “In God We Trust” began its life on currency during the Civil War.
The use of religion by the government to strengthen nationalism and morale was considerably effective and an important part of our social and national history.
So, when considering whether the intent of the cross in the chapel was to give privilege to Christians, it’s a no-brainer. It wasn’t because our Founding Fathers were Christians, or because, as many like to spout, our country was “founded on Christian principles,” but because of a historical context of a faith effort to revive the American spirit.
The use of religion by the government in cases like this is suspect, but there’s no doubt it helped a lot of people get through the hard times we can’t begin to fathom as young students today.
Our Constitution clearly states the boundary between church and state, forbidding the promotion of any religious practice over another, or lack of, by federally funded institutions. But at the same time, people have a right to a place of worship. On a college campus, and in a nation that promotes spiritual freedom, a small universal chapel is a practical investment.
It may seem like promoting religion over atheism, but there are many groups and places on campus you can go to experience a lack of faith. It’s only fair that those who wish to practice religion on campus have a place to do so – and more importantly to our principles, a designated place.
The only real “issue” with this chapel is the complaints about the preference of religion that lies within. Blumenfeld pointed out the cross, but initially neglected to mention the Jewish symbols as well.
However, neither one, nor two, religions in the chapel is enough. I would propose that the space be utilized as a place of full religious and spiritual enlightenment.
Now, Blumenfeld has already written another letter of concern that the prospect of trying to include all religions would be ridiculous, which leads me to believe the man is a bit more than a concerned observer – more like a crusader. The worst thing to do in cases such as this is to attack the religious rights of the masses. It causes so much more trouble than the problem is actually worth because people want to interpret things as liberally or literally as it appeases them.
Nondenominational is defined as a concept in which something is not restricted to a particular religion. The hasty and unwarranted attacks on Christianity as some kind of conspiracy – just because of the beliefs of the man who designed it and the national attitude at the time – are ridiculous.
The chapel can be made into a universal religious space that pays homage to the concept of the freedom to unite and worship whomever or whatever you choose. In fact, it would make a great project for those in the design schools. Maybe even history and philosophy majors could get involved in stocking the chapel with literature about the origins, diversity and impact of religion.
We can’t and shouldn’t deny the presence of symbols, in a space we have already designated for religious practices, to our students. It takes watchdogs on both sides to protect our freedoms, and we should be working together to enjoy and exercise them, not immediately disregarding them when someone gets upset.
There’s no need to take anything away. Making it diverse enough to satisfy everyone will probably never happen, and in the meantime, the work needed to reconstruct the chapel puts even more people off the idea. But there are willing people out there who want to help make their mark and give a voice to these efforts – we only need to tell them that they can.
Luci Van Scoy is a junior in anthropology from Newton.
After assistant professor of curriculum and instruction Warren Blumenfeld called for the removal of religious symbols from the Memorial Union chapel, a number of people have proposed that, rather than take them out, we allow the symbols of other religions to be displayed as well. I, for one, think that is a fantastic idea.
So where can I drop off my symbol for incorporation into the chapel? I belong to a small but proud sect known as Geoffrianity. Our symbol is a portrait of myself, Geoffrey Lloyd, festooned with neon lights and firecrackers. Additionally, the tenets of our religion state that the portrait must be no smaller than 18-foot-by-18-foot, or it doesn’t count. I trust that proper accommodations will be made to the chapel’s door or interior if necessary.
I also can’t wait to tell all my friends around campus, who belong to fertility cults, the good news. Of course, after they have installed their religious symbols, we may need to restrict access to the chapel to adults over 18.