(RNS) March 6--The fundamentalist South Carolina university that set off aheated debate in the Republican race for the White House has dropped itscontroversial ban on interracial dating, leaving students and staffbewildered at the surprise decision.

Appearing on CNN's "Larry King Live," Bob Jones III, president ofBob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., said March 3 that thedecision to lift the ban came after a month of controversy centered onthe school.

"This thing has gotten so out of hand," Jones said, according to theAssociated Press. "All of a sudden the university is at the center of aRepublican presidential debate."

The simmering controversy began on Feb. 2 when Texas Gov. George W.Bush kicked off his South Carolina campaign at the school. When hestayed silent on the dating ban and school statements that have calledthe pope an agent of the anti-Christ, Arizona Sen. John McCain hammered Bush fornot denouncing the school's theology.

McCain's campaign made "Catholic Voter Alert" phone calls to primaryvoters in Michigan and Washington state, reminding them of Bush'sappearance at the school. Bush has since apologized to New York'sCardinal John O'Connor for not denouncing the school's views, calling ita "missed opportunity causing needless offense, which I deeply regret."

Jones told King that the controversy had distracted the school fromits central mission. "Our concern for the cause of Christ, our concernfor our graduates," had been overshadowed, Jones said.

Gathered at the school's auditorium to watch Larry King's show,thousands of students were surprised and bewildered by Jones' decisionto end the ban, news reports said.

"We didn't expect this at all," BJU senior Naion Lundy told theAssociated Press.

Added Jonathan Pait, the school's spokesman, "I don't think even(Jones') own secretary knew what he was going to do."

University officials said the theological justification for the50-year-old ban stemmed from the biblical story of the Tower of Babel,where God scattered the people into many different races. Officials saidthey believe God wanted to prevent one race of people, and therefore theraces should be kept separate.

But the school has made no apologies for statements made againstCatholics, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus and even evangelical stalwartssuch as evangelist Billy Graham and the Southern Baptist Convention.