Nestled 12 miles west of Philadelphia's Center City, Villanova University is and always has been a Roman Catholic institution, founded by two Augustinian priests in 1841. The school avoided damage from the 1844 Philadelphia Nativist Riots, although the financial impact on its sponsors closed the school for a season.
But from 1846 until today, Villanova has been a fixture in the academic firmament of southeastern Pennsylvania, in the "Main Line" suburb of Radnor. So much so that the school wants to construct a pedestrian bridge over busy Lancaster Avenue, joining two sections of the growing campus. Radnor officials approved the construction of the bridge at a recent board of commissioners (or, BOC) meeting.
Not exactly headline-grabbing news, right?
Well, 'Nova (as alumni fondly refer to the school) is Roman Catholic, and wouldn't you know, those good Catholic people like to put crosses on things, such as buildings on the campus? (Take a look at the opening sequence of the orientation video above. In about the first 20 seconds, there are plenty of crosses on campus buildings, and not just the main church, that are visible.)
And yes, 'Nova wants to place crosses on the new bridge. That makes it news, at least for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which topped its account with the hair-smoldering-if-not-on-fire headline:
There's a bit of verbiage here, but read on to find the bone of contention:
The Radnor Township Board of Commissioners late Monday approved a controversial pedestrian bridge that would link Villanova University's main campus with a planned expansion on the southern side of Lancaster Avenue.
The 6-0 decision, with board President Elaine P. Schaefer abstaining, came after an hour of debate and discussion over a key element of the bridge's design: 4-foot, 7-inch metal crosses atop stone pillars on opposite sides of the structure. In the end, the board concluded that it did not have the authority to regulate or prohibit the crosses. ...
One of the opponents of the project, Sara Pilling, a longtime resident who lives a couple of blocks from the university, said she understands the township is constrained by the law.
"But I believe that Villanova is not following the spirit of the law," Pilling said.
The bridge, part of a $285 million expansion project, is to be built over Lancaster Avenue and scheduled to be completed by 2018.
The controversy arose when some Radnor residents called it an audacious show of religion that has no place in a township of many faiths.
Wow. Just wow. I seem to recall that a few short years ago, "audacity" was in vogue as a book title, but I suppose there are limits. Pilling, who is said to have earned a master's degree in community organizing from Eastern University and is a well-known community activist according to a Radnor Township newsletter, is clearly perturbed:
“I think they are overstepping their sense of ecumenism to shove these crosses in our faces," Pilling said in an interview before the meeting.
The Radnor chapter of the League of Women Voters also weighed in:
“While we recognize the importance of Villanova to our community and the notoriety it brings to Radnor, are there less ostentatious ways to reflect a Catholic institution?” said the league’s Roberta Winters in an interview.
While the Inquirer's Susan Snyder, the paper's longtime education writer, allows the Rev. Peter Donohue, Villanova's president, to say that the school puts crosses on all its structures, the weight of the piece is to call the placement of the crosses on the bridge into question. There might, possibly, maybe, perhaps, be a constitutional issue: Pennsylvania state funds will contribute to part of the cost of constructing the bridge, but the bridge itself will be owned and maintained by the school once completed. (Not being a constitutional scholar, I'll set that question aside for the moment.)
Of greater concern, journalistically, is why reporter Snyder chose to dwell so much on the 4-foot-7-inch crosses planned for the bridge. Yes, there might also be a safety hazard should an overly enthusiastic 'Nova-ite climb on the pillars on which the cross will be affixed, but that is not a First Amendment issue.
The bulk of the quotes in the Inquirer story deal with the alleged imposition of the crosses on the community, and there's little attention paid to the right of Villanova to express its faith, or to any academic or legal scholar who might be able to add perspective.
Interestingly, a local paper, the Main Line Suburban Life, did what I believe is a better job capturing all sides of the discussion. Reporter Linda Stein was at the commissioner's meeting, too, but her account included more pro-bridge voices:
One [resident], Jim Giegarich, said that the idea of potential danger is “waving smoke around.” Even without the crosses “you’re still going to have those piers there,” he said. “And somebody is more likely then to climb up on it.” As far as installing smaller crosses, “fine architecture is a matter of scale,” he said. Shrinking it down would make it look “so diminutive that it’s going to look ridiculous.”
“I don’t think anybody in this country in this day and age should be afraid to have a symbol of religion,” said Giegerich. “In fact if we had more symbols of religions, maybe our country would get to healing itself.”
And remember my point about a legal voice? Well, the Suburban Life account includes something rather significant the Inquirer apparently chose to omit: an assertion by a Villanova attorney that the law is on the university's side:
Nicholas Caniglia, the lawyer for Villanova, told the BOC that the courts have ordered other townships to pay significant damages to applicants in similar cases.
“If they’re going to deny Villanova the right to put a cross on their land, a Catholic institution, and prohibit them from putting a cross on their land, I think you’re really looking, and I’ve never liked the word or two words, at a very slippery situation,” Caniglia said.
It's to be expected that an attorney representing Villanova would support the school's positions. And the Inquirer makes plain that there were those present who disagreed with Villanova's contentions. But by suggesting that adding crosses makes this a church-state issue, and by omitting equally valid community voices in favor of the design, the Inquirer shortchanges its readers, making their story a bridge too far, I believe.