In a move reminiscent of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History’s removal of a donor’s plaque celebrating “God’s creatures”, Purdue University, in Lafayette, Indiana, is being sued because it refused to put up a donor’s plaque that referred to God.
When Michael McCracken and his wife made a $12,500 donation to Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering in 2012, Purdue asked the engineering graduate to provide an inscription for a conference room dedication plaque, which would be installed in the recently renovated Herrick Laboratories.
But the words McCracken chose, in honor of his parents, turned out to be controversial.
“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.”
Purdue rejected the dedication because of its use of the word “God,” which officials said would be a government endorsement of religion. Purdue is a public institution and receives money from state and federal entities.
McCracken, his lawyer and The Liberty Institute, a national group backing him, said the plaque is private speech and that Purdue’s ban violates his First Amendment rights under the establishment clause.
“The First Amendment protects Dr. McCracken’s right to refer to ‘God’s physical laws,’ ” said McCracken’s attorney, Robert K. Kelner of Covington & Burling LLP.
Well, not so fast. Purdue University, like the museum in Los Angeles, is a state university, i.e., an arm of the government of Indiana. The First Amendment prohibits the mixing of church and state (university in this case), so such signs are not only misleading (“God’s physical laws”—really??), presuming the existence of God, but unconstitutional. Purdue has every right to prohibit them, and I’m pleased that university took that stand. But I’m not proud of them, because of the way they phrased their objection (see below).
Now of course the donor has every right to take his money back unless there is a signed document saying that he’s donating the money without restrictions, but it appears that Purdue also seemed to approve a priori whatever the donor wanted to say. In that case Purdue made a mistake, but is under no legal obligation to provide a sign that violates the constitution. And in such a case it must return the money. But $12,500 is chicken feed to a school like Purdue.
Purdue’s legal counsel made the following statement:
“We have a great deal of understanding and sympathy for the disappointment of the McCracken family. 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. 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.”
As you see, the University is taking no position on the constitutionality of the wording, which I find a bit disappointing. They are simply saying that they can’t take the cost of a lawsuit. Well, that’s disingenuous because there’s no guarantee that anyone would sue (somebody with “standing” would have to complain). What they are doing is covering their own butts without offending the donor’s religious sentiments, and probably in light of the fact that they screwed up. I think, though, that I know of one or two Purdue faculty that might have complained about such a plaque!
McCracken’s lawyer made the expected defense:
“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.”
It’s not a private reference if it’s on a state university campus in public view! But Kelner did hit a nerve by zeroing in on Purdue’s unwise implication that they would engage in litigation defending the plaque had McCracken’s donation been larger.
In the end, though, there’s no way this plaque will—or should—go up. It’s clearly a violation of the First Amendment, and I have a feeling that someone with standing would raise an objection. That would allow a first-amendment suit to go forward, probably with the help of the Freedom from Religion Foundation
The newspaper article ends with this ominous statement:
McCracken’s lawyer said his client has given him the go-ahead to enter into litigation should the situation not be cleared up through negotiation.
Such litigation would be a loser if Purdue gives the money back. And someone who can afford a donation of only $12,500 is unlikely to be able to foot the costs of a free-speech lawsuit—unless the Liberty Institute will handle the case pro bono.
If you want to see the profound misunderstanding that Americans have over their First Amendment, read some of the comments on the article (click on “comments” on the bottom). One reader even says that if you don’t like this kind of religious statement, just turn your head and don’t look at it. That, of course, could justify all kinds of religious incursions into government. I don’t suppose that reader would make the same argument if there were an (equally illegal) plaque saying, “This building was donated in the name of humanity, for there is no God.”