Arkansas State University says it will be removing the Christian cross from football players' helmets after a complaint was filed claiming that it violates separation of church and state laws.
The Red Wolves football team's helmets feature a white cross along with the initials of deceased ASU teammate Markel Owens, who was murdered during a home invasion in January, and equipment manager Barry Weyer, who died in a car accident earlier this year.
"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," athletics director Terry Mohajir told USA Today Sports.
He continued: "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. That's what we were told we needed to do. So that's what we did."
Mohajir said the idea for the decal came from a leadership committee of football players and he approved it because he said he supports "any time our players have an expression of faith."
According to ASU, the complaint was filed by a Jonesboro, Arkansas, attorney Louis Nisenbaum who sent the university's counsel, Lucinda McDaniel, an email about the crosses. In it, he addressed the symbol, which he said he noticed while watching a game, and asserted that it was a "clear violation of the Establishment Clause as a state endorsement of the Christian religion."
McDaniel then addressed the issue with Mohajir, noting that while there are no legal cases contesting the placement crosses on football helmets, she recommended that the bottom of the cross be cut off in order for the decal to appear as a plus sign instead.
"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," said McDaniel. "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."
Weyer's parents commented that the controversy surrounding the cross has reopened their wounds after grieving over the loss of their son, and explained that the decal on the back of the helmets is a sign that Markel and Barry are not forgotten.
"With them wearing these crosses, that was another thing to fill that heart to let us know he still mattered," said Barry Weyer Sr.
Mohajir explained that the football team will continue to honor Markel and Barry by removing the top and bottom parts of the cross, which will turn the cross into a dash between the initials.
"I'll back them (the team) to the day I die, but legally we had to remove them," said Mohajir.