A constitutional melee has erupted at Purdue University in Indiana, which is under fire from a donor for deleting religious language from an honorary plaque against his wishes.
Lawyers for Purdue alumnus Michael McCracken say the public university is violating his First Amendment rights by refusing his request that a reference to Gods physical laws be included on a plaque in a conference room named after his parents.
The university agreed to install the plaque located in a new research building with an inscription of his choosing after Mr. McCracken and his wife made a pledge of $12,500 to Purdues School of Mechanical Engineering, according to a letter sent by his attorneys to a university attorney last week.
Mr. McCracken, who earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Purdue, asked that the conference room be named after his parents and requested that the plaque state: To those who seek to better the world through the understanding of Gods physical laws and innovation of practical solutions. In honor of Dr. William Ed and Glenda McCracken, according to the letter, written by Robert Kelner, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP.
Purdue rejected the language, claiming that the generic and nonsectarian reference to Gods physical laws amounted to an impermissible government endorsement of religion, according to Mr. Kelner. The plaque that was installed mentioned only Mr. McCrackens parents, he said.
The Universitys current position violates the McCrackens First Amendment rights, wrote Mr. Kelner in his letter. Mr.McCracken is also represented by the Liberty Institute,a conservative legal group.
The university didnt respond to a request for comment Monday. Purdues legal counsel told the Indianapolis Star in a statement that while Purdue has a great deal of understanding and sympathy for the disappointment of the McCracken family, it doubts thatthe courts would find this private speech as the donors counsel argues.
The universitys lawyer also expressed concern that if Purdue were to grant Mr. McCrackens request, the university would face lengthy and expensive litigation that would wipe out the value of this donation many times over.
Citing a 1995 First Amendment ruling handed down by the Supreme Court, Mr. Kelner wrote in his letter: The Supreme Court has made clear that private religious speech, far from being a First Amendment orphan, is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression. By refusing to allow the McCrackens to refer to God on the plaque, the University has impermissibly prohibited private religious speech while at the same time permitting secular private expression in other plaques and forums.
Mr. Kelner said that in late January he suggested a different wording that would make it clearer that the university isnt endorsing the religious language on the plaque. It would read instead:
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University in First-Amendment Clash With Donor Over Reference to God on Plaque