Arkansas State University violated the law when they ordered football players to either remove or modify crosses they had affixed to their helmets, a prominent religious liberty law firm alleges.
The cross decals were meant to memorialize former player Markel Owens who was killed in January and former equipment manager Barry Weyer, who was killed in a June car crash.
“ASU’s actions in defacing the students’ memorial stickers to remove their religious viewpoint is illegal viewpoint discrimination against the students’ free speech,” said Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for Liberty Institute.
Sasser, who is representing an unnamed student, gave the university until Wednesday to “cease your censorship and publicly acknowledge, in writing, the right of ASU’s students to engage in private speech, including speech in the form of a cross-shaped helmet sticker memorial to their former colleagues.”
The memorial drew the ire of a Jonesboro, Arkansas attorney along with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group of perpetually offended atheists.
FFRF co-presidents Annie Lauire Gaylor and Dan Barker went so far as to suggest alternative ways for the football players to mourn.
“Many teams around the country honor former teammates by putting that player’s number on their helmets or jerseys, or by wearing a black armband,” they wrote in a letter to the University. “Either of those options, or another symbolic gesture free from religion imagery, would be appropriate.”
Fearing a potential lawsuit, the university chickened out.
According to documents provided to me by Arkansas State, University counsel Lucinda McDaniel gave the football team a choice – they could either remove the cross or modify the decal. And by modify – she meant deface.
“It is my opinion that the crosses must be removed from the helmets,” McDaniel wrote in a letter to the school’s athletic director. “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.”
So McDaniel suggested they deface the religious symbol.
“If the bottom of the cross can be cut off so that the symbol is a plus sign (+) there should be no problem,” she wrote. “It is the Christian symbol which has caused the legal objection.”
The players agreed to modify the crosses.
“It is outrage that the university defacing the cross and reducing it to what the university calls a plus sign,” Sasser told me. “It is disgusting.”
He accused ASU of trying to placate the demands of out-of-town atheists who he said have a “lengthy track record of bullying and intimidating schools across the country into driving any apparent religious reference from public sight.”
The university did not return my call seeking comment.
“We are about to find out if Arkansas State University will follow the law or simply used the excuse of the FFRF letter to purposefully engage in unconstitutional religious viewpoint discrimination,” Sasser told me.
“The players put themselves through a physical, emotional, and mental grind throughout the year to stand up and represent everything that is good about Arkansas State University, its fans, its alumni and the surrounding community. Now we will find out if Arkansas State University will stand up for them and the Constitution of the United States.”
The war on religious liberty has come to Jonesboro, Arkansas. The time has come for the leaders of Arkansas State University to choose a side. Will they stand with the U.S. Constitution or the Wisconsin atheists?
I hope they choose wisely.
Todd Starnes is host of Fox News & Commentary, heard on hundreds of radio stations. His latest book is "God Less America: Real Stories From the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values." Follow Todd on Twitter @ToddStarnes and find him on Facebook.