(RNS) Arkansas State is removing a Christian cross decal from the back of its football helmets after a complaint that it violated separation of church and state, the university said Wednesday (Sept. 10).
Athletics director Terry Mohajir said he wanted to fight the decision because the decal was intended to honor former player Markel Owens and equipment manager Barry Weyer, who both died this year. However, Mohajir said he had little choice but to follow advice from the university’s legal counsel to remove or modify the symbol.
“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.
Rebecca Markert, an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said her organization had been looking into the matter since hearing about the decals over the weekend but had not yet lodged a formal complaint with Arkansas State.
“That is great news,” Markert said of the school’s decision. “Putting religious imagery on public school property is unconstitutional.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has been looking into potential church-state separation issues at college football programs during the past year, particularly at Clemson and Ole Miss. Markert said the organization recently filed an open records request with Ole Miss regarding its chaplain program.
According to documents provided to USA Today by Arkansas State, Jonesboro, Ark., attorney Louis Nisenbaum sent an email to University Counsel Lucinda McDaniel on Saturday, pointing out that he noticed the crosses while watching Arkansas State’s game at Tennessee earlier that day.
“That is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause as a state endorsement of the Christian religion,” Nisenbaum wrote. “Please advise whether you agree and whether ASU will continue this practice.”
On Monday, McDaniel emailed Mohajir, saying she found no specific legal cases that addressed crosses on football helmets but recommending that the bottom of the cross could be cut off so the symbol would be a plus sign.
“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. “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.”
Mohajir said the original idea for the decal came from a leadership committee of players and that wearing it was voluntary.
“Any time our players have an expression of faith and wanting to honor two members of the football program, I’m 100 percent behind them,” he said.