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

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

"This thing has gotten so out of hand," Jones said, according to the Associated Press. "All of a sudden the university is at the center of a Republican 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 he stayed silent on the dating ban and school statements that have called the pope an agent of the anti-Christ, Arizona Sen. John McCain hammered Bush for not denouncing the school's theology.

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

Jones told King that the controversy had distracted the school from its central mission. "Our concern for the cause of Christ, our concern for 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' decision to end the ban, news reports said.

"We didn't expect this at all," BJU senior Naion Lundy told the Associated 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 the 50-year-old ban stemmed from the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where God scattered the people into many different races. Officials said they believe God wanted to prevent one race of people, and therefore the races should be kept separate.

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

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