Cross decals were ordered removed from players’ football helmets at Arkansas State University after complaints that their presence violated the First Amendment.
The team was ordered to remove or modify the small Christian symbol, which had been placed on helmets to commemorate the lives of Markel Owens, a former player, and Barry Weyer, the former equipment manager, according to conservative commentator Todd Starnes.
Weyed died in a car accident in June and Owens was shot to death in January, leading fellow players to honor them by placing a decal featuring their initials on the arms of a cross.
“The players knew they were both Christians so they decided to use the cross along with their initials,” Barry Weyer Sr. told Starnes in an interview. “They wanted to carry the spirits of Markel and Barry Don onto the field for one more season.”
But when Louis Nisenbaum, an attorney in Jonesboro, Arkansas, saw the team playing on television recently, he reached out to the university’s legal counsel to complain about the cross.
Arkansas State University attorney Lucinda McDaniel subsequently agreed that the symbol was problematic, recommending that athletic director Terry Mohajir order it removed or alter it.
“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 wrote, expressing fears that the university would lose a potential legal challenge.
Mohajir, who disagreed with the decision to remove the crosses, said he was merely supporting the players’ individual rights by allowing it in the first place.
“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,” Mohajir said in an interview with USA Today. “Yes, it is unfortunate, and I am disappointed. 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.”
Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Rebecca Markert told the outlet that the decision to remove the symbol is “great news” and that “putting religious imagery on public school property is unconstitutional.”
The central question, of course, is whether the football players decided on their own to place the cross on their helmets or whether they were compelled by a coach or school leaders. Individual religious expression is generally permitted, even in public venues.
The team was reportedly also told they could turn the cross into a plus sign if they chose not to remove it, which would have no longer made it a Christian symbol.