Dr. Michael McCracken and his wife made a $12,500 pledge to [Purdue University's] school of mechanical engineering. In return, Purdue, a large public university in Indiana, offered the McCrackens the opportunity to name a small conference room in a lab building. They were also invited to supply language for a plaque that would be installed in the room.Dys is probably right, though this is one of those close questions that is perfect for a bar examination question. The First Amendment contains two religion clauses. The Establishment Clause was reinterpreted in the 1947 Everson case and progeny to apply to states and to prohibit government activity that endorses or promotes religion, or religion over non-religion. The other First Amendment Clause, the one that liberals like to pretend does not exist, has been interpreted to mean that government has an affirmative duty to accommodate religion, even on public property. Sometimes those two conflicts appear to have come in conflict.
McCracken chose to name the room after his father, Dr. William McCracken, who graduated from Purdue with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, and his mother Glenda, who died recently.
The plaque was inscribed with the following message:
“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.”McCracken says the university had rejected the message because it amounted to an “impermissible government endorsement of religion.” He was stunned.
“Purdue is not a God-free zone,” said Jeremiah Dys, a Liberty Institute attorney representing the McCrackens. “Purdue’s ban on any reference to God by a private speaker violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.”
This case is very similar to those commencement prayer speech cases. If a teacher gets up at the high school commencement and gives a prayer that would be a violation of the Establishment Clause. If a valedictorian gives a prayer as part of her speech, that not only wouldn't be an Establishment Clause violation , it would be a Free Exercise Clause violation if school officials tried to stop her.
Assuming the facts are as presented, Purdue gave the McCrackens the right to draft the message. Not only is the plaque not an Establishment Clause violation, the refusal to post the donor's message because it mentioned "God" probably interfered with the McCracken's rights under the Free Exercise of Religion Clause.