Purdue University Allows Donor to Cite ‘God’s Physical Laws’ in Plaque Description

When Michael McCracken and his wife wanted to donate $12,500 to Purdue University’s School of Mechanical Engineering, he asked for a plaque honoring his parents to be installed outside one of the conference rooms:

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, as a public institution, didn’t want to appear to be endorsing religion (or open the door to other donors making similar demands, I figure), so they said they couldn’t accept the dedication as written.

So McCracken did what any generous donor would do: He threatened to sue, making sure the school’s legal costs would undo any money he ever gave them. Contrary to his lawyers’ argument that this was “private” speech and therefore not a violation of the First Amendment, Purdue’s side responded with reason:

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.

That is a bit of a cop-out, saying that the only reason the school won’t litigate this is because it would cost too much money instead of saying outright that a plaque is a promotion of religion appropriate at a private school but not a public university, but you can understand the PR-reasons for it.

It’s all moot now, though, since both sides have reached an agreement: The plaque will go up with the godly wording, but it’ll be very clear that McCracken, not the university, is saying it:

The revised language reads as follows: “Dr. Michael McCracken: ‘To all those who seek to better the world through the understanding of God’s physical laws and innovation of practical solutions.’ Dr. Michael and Mrs. Cindy McCracken present this plaque in honor of Dr. William ‘Ed’ and Glenda McCracken and all those similarly inspired to make the world a better place.”

However, the University will be adding an additional plaque accompanying McCracken’s which will clarify that his words are not the speech of Purdue and that the University is aware of its neutrality obligations by law.

That doesn’t strike me as much of a compromise. Any stranger who saw the homage to God in the original inscription would know it came from the donor, so does the change really make much of a difference?

Jerry Coyne shares that sentiment and explains the possible ramifications of this decision:

To see why this compromise solution is problematic, imagine someone donating money for other public facilities, like courthouses or elementary schools, and then insisting that the facilities post the palpably false statement that morality or science or whatever are “gifts of God.” Then the courthouse or school simply adds a disclaimer plaque saying that those words aren’t theirs and they’re cognizant (as they damn well better be!) of obeying the Constitution. That wouldn’t fly, so why would it fly in a public university? There seems to be some feeling afoot that public universities are somehow Constitutionally different from public secondary schools or other public institutions. They aren’t.

I can’t wait for an atheist donor to give $12,500 to the school with the caveat that it installs a sign saying, “This donation was the result of my hard work; God had nothing to do with it.” Purdue can add a disclaimer to that all it wants. It won’t matter. The point is that the floodgates have opened and Purdue has set a low bar on how much money it would take for donors to buy a shout-out to God.

Just wait. It won’t be long before other Christian donors make the same kind of demands — and Purdue will have no choice but to acquiesce.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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