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Support for Lighted Cross Rekindles an Old Debate

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Times Staff Writer

Thick streams of light in the shape of a cross burst from the tower at the front of Pepperdine University -- at least they do on the college’s seal splashed across sweaters, mugs and T-shirts.

In reality, nobody has dared to flip the switch that lights a 25-foot-tall cross set into the tower’s walls. And whether to finally give it light after 33 years of darkness has become the center of a philosophical debate on the Christian campus just west of Malibu.

Students relate the 125-foot, stucco-and-steel tower to a passage from Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.”

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The Phillips Theme Tower isn’t a city. But it is planted on a hill 345 feet above sea level, visible for miles along Pacific Coast Highway and to ships at sea. More important, students say, it is a symbol of Pepperdine’s “commitment to the restoration of New Testament Christianity” -- a commitment set in stone at the base of the tower.

“For us not to light the tower seems to say that we are either ashamed of our heritage or willing to compromise our beliefs and our message,” said Austin Maness, a junior at Pepperdine.

Maness created an online group dedicated to lifting the tower from its darkness at www.Facebook.com, a college-oriented social networking website. The group has grown to nearly 100 members, including a former Pepperdine professor who posted probing questions:

“Is that truly what we have become? Is that our enduring legacy to the world? A place that used to be light unto the world, but has now burned out? Or more accurately, one that has been disconnected and boarded up?”

The Facebook group is just one of many student-led tower efforts that Pepperdine President Andrew K. Benton has watched take off in the last five years. He has observed the growing interest in the tower with curiosity -- and some admiration.

“It’s sweet, and it’s thoughtful, and it reflects the joy of my work: the students’ enthusiasm,” Benton said. “But should we light the tower? I still don’t know. Is our message conveyed clearer? I don’t think it takes a neon-lit cross to strengthen our outreach.”

In 1973, when the tower was completed, then-Pepperdine President William S. Banowsky promised Malibu residents that the cross would never shine as originally planned. It now stands not as a beacon, but as a landmark with only the sound of electric bells chiming every half-hour.

A spokesman said in 1974 that the sounds “would produce rich, warm tones with great carrying power that will not disturb people.”

Banowsky’s promise satisfied surrounding property owners who had complained that the cross was a religious “imposition to the people who live here,” the campus newspaper, the Graphic, reported.

It wouldn’t be the only cross to stir up controversy in California.

After the American Civil Liberties Union threatened a lawsuit, Los Angeles County supervisors voted in 2004 to remove the gold cross that had adorned the county seal since 1957.

The San Diego City Council has been tangled in a legal battle for 17 years while trying to save a 43-foot-tall cross that has stood on Mt. Soledad since 1954. A federal judge ordered that the cross be removed by this August after an atheist filed a lawsuit arguing that the cross is discriminatory because it sits on public land.

Opposition to Pepperdine’s cross came in the form of a Malibu homeowners association; the city didn’t incorporate until 1991.

A later administration, apparently unaware of the promise, made the mistake of lighting the tower in 1977 during the holiday season. The county, which requires a permit for such lighting, gave Pepperdine a month to turn out the lights or face the tower’s destruction, the Graphic reported.

But interest in the tower again took hold in 2002, when the university’s Student Government Assn. pledged to light it for the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Student representatives even applied to the county for a permit, college spokeswoman Lyric Hassler said.

College administrators struck a compromise. Benton allowed the students to rent eight floodlights that were placed at the base of the tower and aimed upward toward the cross.

“I have to say, it was really very special,” Benton said. “But it was a misty night, and the tower actually couldn’t be seen.”

Since the lighting, Benton said, student efforts to light the tower have popped up about every three months.

Maness said students say the unlighted tower attests to the overall state of Pepperdine.

“Campus morale is low. Tuition is up, as well as class sizes ... school spirit is almost nonexistent,” he said. “Those of us who really love Pepperdine want to not only relight the tower literally, but also figuratively; we want to have a principled, excellent university to take pride in.”

Rumors about why the tower remains dark have begun to swirl around campus. One claims that college officials don’t want to pay the electricity bill. Another casts Malibu resident Barbra Streisand as the culprit.

College officials deny the rumors, especially those blaming Streisand or other residents. Benton said that since the lighting in 2002, he has been visited by a number of Malibu residents who have offered their support in lighting the tower.

Others say the tower is fine the way it is.

Marca Kaufer headed the homeowners association that opposed the project before she married Alvin S. Kaufer, a Malibu attorney who spearheaded the fight against the tower in the 1970s. They did not meet until after the tower matter was settled. He died last December.

“My husband was satisfied with the university’s promise not to light the cross,” Kaufer said. “If they broke that promise, he would’ve been very unhappy.”

Kaufer, who is a real estate agent, said the light would shine into many Malibu homes and directly into her windows. Her opposition is not an attack on Christianity, she said.

“I think any tower -- any light -- that large is an intrusion to the community,” she said.

But if the college were to break its promise, Kaufer said, “I don’t think I’d do that all over again. You just get disappointed in the way people behave.”

With that, Pepperdine students say, it’s time for college administrators to make another effort at lighting the cross.

“The university has really gained respect among the community,” said Jonathan Younger, a Pepperdine junior who won a college contest last year for his persuasive speech urging lighting the tower.

Like Maness, Younger sees the lighting as an act of faith. He points to the Bible for support -- specifically the lines following Matthew 5:14:

“Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”


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