An Arkansas State University football player is fighting back after officials reportedly forced players to remove a cross decal they placed on their helmets in memory of deceased team members.
Atheist activists, including leaders at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a secular activist group, said the symbol, which was intended to commemorate the lives of a former player and equipment manager who both died earlier this year, constituted a violation of church and state.
The unnamed football player, who reportedly fears retribution for taking a stand against the university, sent a letter decrying the decision to change the crosses by "trimming them into a straight line," according to a statement from the Liberty Institute, a conservative legal firm.
The letter, which accuses the university of mandating that the vertical line that formed the cross be removed, set a September 17 deadline for Arkansas State University to "cease censoring" and acknowledge in writing that students have the right to free and private speech.
"We are about to find out if Arkansas State University will follow the law or simply used the excuse of the [Freedom From Religion Foundation] letter to purposefully engage in unconstitutional religious viewpoint discrimination," Hiram Sasser, Liberty Institute's litigation director, said in a press release.
As TheBlaze previously reported, the cross decals were ordered removed from players’ football helmets at Arkansas State University after complaints that their presence violated the First Amendment.
The small Christian symbol 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.
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.”
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