Purdue University Removes 'God' From Donor's Plaque; Ignites First Amendment Dispute

An alumnus of Purdue University claims his First Amendment rights were violated after the school refused to inscribe a reference to God on a donation plaque.

In 2012, Dr. Michael McCracken and his wife made a $12,500 pledge to Purdue University's School of Mechanical Engineering. Purdue University, located in West Lafayette, Ind., is McCracken's alma mater. In return for the generous donation, the school allowed McCracken to select the wording for a dedication plaque due to grace a conference room in the school's Herrick Laboratories.

McCracken chose to dedicate the plaque to his father, Dr. William McCracken, and his late mother, Glenda. "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," the original inscription read.

The school reportedly turned down McCracken's wording, saying that because it is a public school receiving state and federal funds, installing a plaque with a reference to God would violate the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause. McCracken is now being backed by the Liberty Institute, which argues Purdue violated their client's First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of religion. The Liberty Institute is a national, nonprofit legal defense group dedicated to preserving religious liberty in the U.S.

"Purdue's ban on any reference to God by a private speaker violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," Jeremiah Dys, senior counsel to Liberty Institute, said in a statement. "Dr. McCracken's plaque language is private speech that is protected by the First Amendment. Purdue allows dozens of other private speakers to express their values and views on plaques around campus; it cannot legally single out Dr. McCracken for discrimination."

McCracken is also being represented by Robert K. Kelner of Covington & Burling LLP. "The First Amendment protects Dr. McCracken's right to refer to 'God's physical laws,'" Kelner added in statement. "Purdue asked Dr. McCracken to supply language of his choice in recognition of his and his wife's generous pledge to their alma mater. He chose language that honors the values instilled by his parents – Ed, also a Purdue alumnus, and Glenda, who recently passed away."

McCracken has reportedly indicated to the Liberty Institute that they may pursue legal action if the university does not respond to their letter by March 5. The legal team's letter is requesting that the school reinstate McCracken's original language to the plaque.

Steve Schultz, legal counsel for the university, released a statement regarding the issue to the Indianapolis Star.

"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," the statement read.

"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."