When the Arkansas State football players decided to put crosses on their helmets to honor two fallen teammates, they didn’t anticipate the firestorm that would erupt. Their simple act of remembrance led to complaints, an order to remove or modify the decals, and now victory as the University has reversed its decision. The crosses can stay.
Since the 2013 football season, the Arkansas State Red Wolves have lost two of their members. Junior defensive lineman Markel Owens was murdered as he tried to defend his mother in a home invasion in January. Barry Weyer, Jr., the team’s equipment manager, was killed in a car crash in June.
Going into the new season, the Red Wolves coaches and leadership team decided that they wanted to memorialize Owens and Weyer, according to NBC. They came up with the idea to print decals with a cross and the teammates’ initials, to be worn on the ASU football helmets.
The team was supportive of the symbol. According to Arkansas State player Raziel Velgis, the cross decals were “a big deal for us.” He said that this was a way of honoring their fallen teammates, and that the players “wanted to always keep them there with us.”
Barry Weyer’s mother Mechelle spoke with FOX, choking back tears, about Markel’s mother and her seeing their sons’ teammates with the crosses on their helmets at the Montana State game.
“I felt as if [Barry and Markel] were on the field with those players, and we were very touched and honored that they respected our children enough to have that [cross decal] placed there.”
The Red Wolves of Arkansas State wore the cross memorials without incident for two games.
But while friends and family of the two boys appreciated the cross decals as a sincere gesture of mourning, an atheist group and an attorney from Jonesboro, Arkansas, saw the opportunity for another tiresome potential lawsuit. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based atheist group, wrote a scathing letter to the university demanding that the offensive stickers be removed. The group even listed ways that the team could mourn in ways that that the group would tolerate, such as “putting that player’s number on their helmets or jerseys, or by wearing a black armband.” Anything but a cross, or a religious symbol.
Fearing a lawsuit, the university acquiesced. They demanded that the crosses be removed or modified into a horizontal line or a plus sign, because, as FOX commentator Todd Starnes writes, “apparently nothing says ‘In Memoriam’ like applied mathematics.”
The divide between the “freedom of religion and speech” and the “separation of church and state” crowds was on. People chose their sides just as passionately as any college football fans declare their loyalty. Far from settling the issue, the decree from the Arkansas State officials only poured fuel on the fire.
Indeed, stories are increasingly of students pushing back against what many see as a small, but vocal, minority who have been silencing free speech and religious freedom on school campuses across the U.S. Recently, The Inquisitr has reported that cheerleaders at a high school in Tennessee defied a ban on school prayer, and that students and parents at a Florida high school got together for a huge group prayer at a football game, saying “Amen” instead of cheering.
In Arkansas, the push-back came in the form of the Liberty Institute filing a lawsuit on behalf of one of the Red Wolves players, who argued that his right to free speech was being violated by the university’s crackdown on the cross decals. Arkansas State denies any wrong-doing.
After some negotiation between the school and the Liberty Institute, the football players have now won the right to display the cross decals if they wish, as long as nobody from the university buys them or sticks them on their helmets for them. The boys will have to put their own cross stickers on their gear, all by themselves. According to a letter from Arkansas State University President Charles Welsh,
“[t]he display of these stickers will be totally voluntary and completely independent of university involvement. The university will not procure the stickers, purchase them, or affix them to the helmets.”
The players are good with that. They really didn’t care who actually put the cross stickers on their helmets. According to Velgis, “it was just for the honoring of those names.” Now, the Arkansas State players have state permission to honor Markel Owens and Barry Weyer, Jr., even if it is with crosses.
[images via ASU]