JONESBORO, Ark. — A member of the Arkansas State University (ASU) football team is fighting back against a recent decision to order players to remove a cross decal from their helmets over a complaint that the symbol is unconstitutional.
As previously reported, the decal 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 is voluntary for any player who desires to affix the memorial to their helmet.
But after Jonesboro attorney Louis Nisenbaum saw the symbol on 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 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, but ultimately felt that he had to follow McDaniel’s instructions.
Now, one of the members of the football team—who is remaining anonymous for fear of retribution—has obtained legal assistance from the Liberty Institute to fight back against the decision. The organization wrote a letter to McDaniel and ASU President Charles Welch on Monday.
“ASU’s actions in defacing the students’ memorial stickers to remove their religious viewpoint is illegal viewpoint discrimination against the students’ free speech. As these stickers were designed by and adopted by the students on their own, they constitute protected student speech,” the letter, written by Director of Strategic Litigation Hiram Sasser, stated. “Furthermore, ASU’s actions evince that hostility to religion that the Supreme Court has stated is a violation of the Establishment Clause.”
Liberty Institute then demanded a response by Wednesday affirming the team’s right to voluntarily post the decals on their helmets.
“ASU now has a choice to abide by the constitutional mandate that it accommodate the students’ religious expression and cease its censorship of their protected free speech,” Sasser wrote. “If Arkansas State University refuses to acknowledge and restore the First Amendment rights of its students, we will immediately take appropriate action.”
Other Christian legal organizations have likewise written to the university over concerns about the matter. Liberty Counsel (no relation to Liberty Institute) sent a letter last week to ASU Chancellor Tim Hudson after being contacted by area residents and alumni.
“I am saddened that the university did not stand up for their rights,” said Founder and Chairman Mat Staver. “These young people have done nothing wrong! They have as much right to communicate their ideas—or in this case, their grief—as the attorney who somehow feels offended by the small vinyl crosses they are wearing on their helmets.”
Photo: Flirry Vorru