JONESBORO, Ark. — Members of the Arkansas State University (ASU) football team, also known as the Red Wolves, will be removing or altering a cross decal from their helmets following a complaint from a local attorney who alleged that the symbol is unconstitutional.
The decal, which was recently affixed to the helmets, was meant to serve as a memorial to former player Markel Owens and equipment manager Barry Weyer, who were both tragically killed this year—Owens in a car crash and Weyer in a shooting.
Both men were professing Christians, so team members chose a cross for the decal as they thought that the use of the symbol was fitting. The decal bears the initials of Owens and Weyer, and was voluntary for any player who desired to affix the memorial to their helmet.
But after Jonesboro attorney Louis Nisenbaum saw the symbol on the player’s helmets during a recently televised football game, he sent a letter to the university, asserting that the crosses presented a constitutional infringement.
“That is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause as a state endorsement of the Christian religion,” he wrote. “Please advise whether you agree and whether ASU will continue this practice.”
University attorney Lucinda McDaniel then reviewed the matter and advised Red Wolves’ athletic director Terry Mojahir that although she did not locate any case law that inferred that the decal must go, she was concerned that a lawsuit could arise out of the matter. She agreed with Nisenbaum that the crosses could be considered a government endorsement of religion.
“While we could argue that the cross with the initials of the fallen student and trainer merely memorialize their passing, the symbol we have authorized to convey that message is a Christian cross,” she stated. “Persons viewing the helmets will, and have, seen the symbol as a cross and interpreted that symbol as an endorsement of the Christian religion. This violates the legal prohibition of endorsing religion.”
McDaniel suggested that players either remove the symbol or cut off the bottom of the cross so that it would look like a plus sign.
Mojahir told reporters this week that he wanted to resist McDaniel’s advice as he supports the right of the players to honor Owens and Weyer in whatever form they desire.
“Any time our players have an expression of faith and wanting to honor two members of the football program, I’m 100% behind them,” he told USA Today Sports. “My job is to support our players and our coaches in their expression of any type of grief, and that’s what I was doing.”
Mojahir said he was also frustrated that the Madison,Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation additionally attempted to force the team to remove the decal from their helmets.
“I don’t even kinda-sorta care about any organization that tells our students how to grieve,” he told Fox reporter Todd Starnes. “Everybody grieves differently. I don’t think anybody has the right to tell our students how to memorialize their colleagues, their classmates or any loved ones they have.”
But the ASU athletic director said he ultimately felt he had to follow McDaniel’s instructions.
“Yes, it is unfortunate, and I am disappointed,” Mujahir stated. “However, we’re also going to uphold whatever legal advice we got, and that’s what we did based on the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. That’s what we were told we needed to do. So that’s what we did.”
Weyer’s father told Starnes that he was saddened with the decision and found it discriminatory that secularism is elevated above religion.
“I just have a hard time understanding why we as Christians have to be tolerant of everybody else’s rights, but give up ours,” he said. “It’s time that we as Christians stand up and say we’re tired of being pushed around. We’re tired of having to bow down to everyone else’s rights. What happened to our rights? The last time I checked it said freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”
Photo: Flirry Vorru