Correction: A student’s major is incorrectly identified. Kirsten Verdi is a psychology major minoring in biology.
By Melody Mendoza and Vanessa Sanchez
After weeks of debate, the crosses on the tower on University Way leading to Main Campus Building were removed either the evening of Nov. 18 or early the next day.
Responses from the campus community on the topic varied. Some students said on The Mesquite’s Facebook forum that they were saddened or angered by the removal of the crosses. Others said they were disappointed with the university for agreeing to remove the crosses.
It was not clear whether the university, including the Office of the President, was involved in the decision to remove the crosses, or whether Verano Land Group acted alone.
The Express-News reported Nov. 21 that Ralph Lampman with VTLM Group, which built the tower, said he ordered the crosses be removed.
Provost Brent Snow was attending A&M system-related meetings Nov. 17 and 18 and said he “had not been contacted about the removal of the crosses and was not aware of it until the article in the Express-News was published.” President Maria Hernandez Ferrier was also unavailable for comment over the weekend. Ferrier is in Spain until Wednesday.
Reached yesterday, Snow wrote in an email: “I’m not sure when the crosses were removed but it must have been Friday or Saturday. I asked our campus security to verify that they were down and then drove to campus early this morning to check. While I haven’t spoken to anyone with the Verano Land Group, I would think the crosses were removed to end the controversy and to allow the Tower of Hope to be the beacon it was intended to be.”
Origin: Professor’s Complaint
The question of whether the crosses is an objectionable presence at the entrance of a public university was raised on campus in the weeks following their placement, and then publicly Nov. 1 in an article in mysa.com which reported an objection from adjunct criminology Professor Sissy Bradford.
Bradford argued the crosses on the tower are inappropriate at a publicly funded institution. She said in the article, “Christianity is not everyone’s tower or beacon of hope, nor is the promotion of Christianity the mission of Texas A&M University-San Antonio.”
The Mesquite reported Nov. 10 that Ferrier said the crosses on the tower were neither appropriate or inappropriate because they are not a part of the university. Ferrier said the tower is a work of art expressing the history and tradition of the South Side, which includes the Spanish missions, but said the tower doesn’t belong to the university.
The tower was built on land owned by Verano Land Group, who donated almost 700 acres to Texas A&M-San Antonio, and the City of San Antonio paid for the tower.
The 10 acres surrounding the tower are a “gateway property” divided evenly by University Way and are owned by Texas A&M-San Antonio, however the land on which the tower is built is owned by Verano.
The mission-style tower, which has undergone several re-surfacing phases since the fall semester began, is stone-like and topped by a bronze dome and a star. The tower includes the university seal, the Verano logo sunburst, the phrase “Torre de Esperanza,” or Tower of Hope, and jaguar heads that emerge from the tower’s corners.
The Express-News reported Nov. 18 that the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C. organization, sent letters to city and university officials to remove the crosses.
But in The Mesquite’s Nov. 10 article, Ferrier said the crosses on the tower do not fall into violation of separation of church and state which implies there cannot be a state religion. “Crosses on a work of art that express an area is not forcing any kind of religion on anyone,” she said.
Facebook Forum Clarifies Student Voice
Students arriving in preparation of Fall Fest, a bi-annual fundraising event for the university’s student groups, were some of the first members of the campus community to notice the crosses were removed.
The Mesquite launched a forum on its Facebook page on Nov. 19 asking students for their reactions to seeing, or hearing, that the crosses were gone.
Several students argued that the professor’s complaint was a single, minority viewpoint and that the opinion of the majority had not been heard.
Others downplayed the amount of press and attention given to the placement of the crosses.
Biology major Kirsten Verdi wrote Sunday evening she was glad that the tower was back to “neutral.”
Rachel Kusama, vocal on the topic since the original complaint was launched by Bradford, moderated the forum through frequent contribution, responding to one student who said she was “sad the crosses were gone”, this way:
“Don’t be sad,” Kusama wrote. “Find that place in your heart that loves your faith and use that to form a Christian student organization; the law allows for that and will equally defend your personal expressions of faith.”
Responding to inquires from members of the campus community, including her own students, Bradford said in an email she had “no comment about the removal of the crosses from the tower” other than what was published in local reports.
“Please feel free to voice your opinion and have discussions regarding the tower crosses on the Mesquite-News Facebook page.”
Addressing students in her classes, she concluded the email, “We will NOT be discussing the tower crosses in class.”
Local story leads to national perspective
In the week following Bradford’s complaint in the local news medai, campus dialogue focused mainly on Bradford. Later, students argued not just over the crosses, but other issues, including whether the argument had become “overblown.”
As the debate intensified, some, including administrators, argued the university had no decision-making power over whether to remove the crosses on the tower because the property on which it was built is owned by Verano. Some students said it did not matter whose property it was on, or who paid for it; the crosses, they said, are decorative and reflective of the region and the Spanish missions.
Those arguments did not hold up well in the view of local and national groups, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a non-partisan group with members of different faiths.
Americans United goal is to “strengthen religion by making sure the constitution keeps church and state separate.”Both the national and local chapters of Americans United pointed out that when a public university uses its seal on a tower that marks its entrance, artful or not, it has to take responsibility for its proximity, and relationship, to the crosses.Ian Smith, staff attorney for Americans United, said his office was notified of the contested crosses at the entrance of the A&M-San Antonio campus through the San Antonio chapter of Americans United.“We are not anti-religion, we are all about keeping government out of religion,” Smith said.Smith, who files new complaints, letters and calls, said he often gets reports from the public and sometimes from people representing local chapters of Americans United. If there is a violation of law, the organization will then take legal matters to assure a change is made.He explained the process: The next action depends on how responses were made. If there is no way to solve the problem through non-litigation, the case is sent up the chain to senior lawyers.That step was averted when Verano made the decision to remove the crosses.
In reference to comments made that the crosses were placed on a work of art, Smith said: “You can have situations where crosses have their religious meaning taken away.”
Smith said there is a large movement to say crosses are art or some kind of memorial or secular work, but said “I would think Christians would find that offensive.”
“It’s detrimental,” he said, questioning why Catholics and Christians would want to pass off the cross as anything other than the sacrifice of the son of God.
Debate leads to educational opportunity
Eric Lane, President of the San Antonio Chapter for Americans United said the notification of the crosses was completed by a member of the San Antonio chapter.
Lane said he had been keeping up with the issue and the arguments voiced by students, including those voiced by Cresencio Davila and Rachel Kusama who exchanged viewpoints in rapid fire Facebook posts earlier this month.
Actions by Americans United “is not an antagonistic attack,” Lane said. “I do hope that the students understand that this is an educational moment.”
“A public institution is an institution funded by public money and has to encounter the beliefs, or non-beliefs, of all students.”
Lane clarified that the origin of separation of church and state is about protecting all religious viewpoints and to protect each individuals’ rights. The public needs to be represented by all religions, Lane said.
“Part of being educated is understanding everyone is on their own paths of religion,” Lane said. Within an institution, there is a diversity of cultures and viewpoints and public monies have to respect that whether it is something of religious viewpoints or non-religious viewpoints.
“That is part of the education process — to accept, respect and live together,” Lane said.
Lane extended his contact information to all students with questions about the organization and its procedures. He said he is more than happy to speak to students and looks forward to any correspondence. Lane’s email address is: email@example.com.