I tried to come up with a title for this story that would be a clever spin on the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” gag, but I’ve got nothing.
New infrastructure that eases congestion of vehicular traffic is good, right? Encouraging people to walk in safety to mass transit is good, too, right? A wheelchair-accessible bridge over a busy road — also good. Am I right? So why is Villanova University in Pennsylvania catching hell over a pedestrian bridge on the school’s property, that the school will own and maintain, and that the Board of Commissioners of the township of Radnor (where Villanova is located) approved by a vote of 6-0? Because the architect’s design calls for two pillars, one at each end of the bridge, each surmounted by a 4-foot, 7-inch tall cross.
Susan Snyder, staff writer for the Inquirer of Philadelphia, tells us that some Radnor residents regard the crosses as “an audacious show of religion that has no place in a township of many faiths.”
One of the opponents is Sara Pilling, who lives near the Villanova campus. Speaking to Snyder before the commissioners meeting began, Pilling said, “I think they [Villanova administrators] are overstepping their sense of ecumenism to shove these crosses in our faces.” Yes, I know. Readers of TAS will spot immediately that “ecumenism” is not really the word Ms. Pilling wanted. But lots of people get their vocabulary tangled when talking with a reporter, so let’s cut the good lady a little slack.
This objection to shoving crosses in the faces of Villanova’s neighbors calls for a prolonged sigh of barely controlled vexation. As Villanova’s president, Father Peter Donahue, pointed out, “On every building on campus, there’s a cross.” In other words, Pilling and her friends can’t drive by Villanova without seeing multiple crosses. In fact, soaring over the stretch of Route 30/Lancaster Avenue, where the bridge will be located, is Villanova’s Church of St. Thomas of Villanova, its towering twin steeples crowned with — you guessed it — crosses. For that matter, I wonder where Ms. Pilling and her friends could drive in this country without passing church steeples topped with crosses and cemeteries where graves are marked with crosses. Even if they opt to travel on foot, sooner or later they’ll walk by someone wearing a cross. Do they recoil, vampire-like, from every random encounter with a cross?
For reasons that defy explanation, the Radnor chapter of the League of Women Voters has decided to weigh in. A member of the league, Roberta Winters, asked, “Are there less ostentatious ways to reflect a Catholic institution?” Perhaps she has in mind a tastefully small plaque on the two pillars that advise Villanova’s students, faculty, and staff, “Don’t look so Catholic.”
Winters had a couple more questions. “What risks, both real and imagined, might be incurred through such ornamentation? Since young adults can act in unpredictable ways, are adequate safeguards in place to prevent drivers from being distracted, debris being tossed onto the roadway, or students being injured through their own actions or those of others?”
So the crosses are a hazard to students and drivers? This debate has descended into unadulterated silliness.
In their desperation, some of the cross opponents have been in touch with the Freedom From Religion Foundation which, according to the Catholic News Agency, wrote to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that it was unconstitutional to fund a bridge adorned with a Christian symbol. The department has gone public with its response to the FFRF, saying that the $3.7 million the state is putting up covers the portion of the bridge that spans Pennsylvania’s right of way. The rest will be paid for by Villanova. And, by the way, the crosses will stand on the school’s property, not on the Pennsylvania-owned portion of the bridge.
Radnor Commissioner Luke Clark, who voted in favor of the bridge, delivered the news the anti-crosses crowd didn’t want to hear: “The design looks great. The crosses are going to go up there. Is it right or wrong? I don’t know. But at the end of the day it is on their property. They are a religious institution and the law for the most part is in their favor.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the First Amendment, but these days, we’ll take what we can get.
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