In advance of Constitution Day, my alma mater in my hometown offers a timely lesson on the Constitution.
Several football players at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, AR, wanted to remember a teammate and an equipment manager who passed recently.
A leadership group of ASU football players decided to make and wear a cross with the initials of the players, to be worn voluntarily. Great young men, creating a sweet remembrance for their friends.
They weren’t lawyers and didn’t recognize there was a small constitutional violation by mixing a religious symbol with a state-sponsored activity (football at a state university).
A lawyer pointed that out to University lawyers, and Arkansas State University did exactly the right thing: they promptly removed the crosses from players’ helmets.
ASU could have fought about it, they could have made a legal case out of it and taken it all the way to the Supreme Court – and maybe the Justices would have created First Amendment freedoms for state institutions, as they did for the billionaire corporations recently.
But those fights cost money and energy.
ASU did the constitutionally correct thing … not the “politically correct” thing as so many people – in and out of Arkansas – are saying this week.
(I have no idea what “politically correct” means. I think it means “stuff I disagree with,” but expect it means something different each time it’s said.)
But what of faith in this proud Bible Belt community?
Businesses and ASU football fans who felt their faith was given short shrift in this decision are making free T-shirts and other giveaways bearing the cross with the initials of former player Markel Owens (killed in a home invasion) and former equipment manager Barry Weyer, Jr. (killed in a car accident).
Expect they will be the standard uniform for many ASU fans for the balance of the season.
Meanwhile, ASU football players have got to be smiling at the wrath their generosity of spirit has unleashed. They can now focus on learning and football, with the community’s wind at their backs.
Everybody is weighing in on the matter, and people of faith are more than a little angry that ASU followed the Constitution on this matter, rather than fighting the constitutional provision in court.
As a Christian, I’m proud of the football players who wanted to remember their friends this way.
As a patriot and ASU alumni, I’m proud that ASU acted quickly to be in compliance with the Constitution.
As a Christian and ASU alumni, I’m grateful that Markel Owens and Barry Weyer, Jr. are going to be known and remembered by many – many – more people than even their teammates thought possible.
All it took was the Constitution and committed Christians.
Religious Liberty 101
The Constitution’s Establishment Clause in the First Amendment says two things: that religion must be separate from government (in this case meaning an entity – college – that gets government funding) … and that nobody is required to belong to a church.
Here’s the genius of our founders: religious liberty works only if government stays out of the faith business.
The Constitution made sure – 3 times – to ensure religion and government did not mix:
Article 6, Clause 3: "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Plus … 2 Clauses in the 1st Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . ." … and "Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Our national tug of war over the propriety of mixing prayer and religious symbols with governing has been with us since the beginning of the republic.
When our nation’s Founders gathered for the very first session of Congress after the Constitution was adopted, some delegates wanted to pray … to seek Divine guidance for this giant unique – national – endeavor. Other delegates wanted to steer clear of a prayer, to be true to the religious liberty they’d just enshrined in their Constitution.
So … they talked about it. Then they prayed.
Our Founders knew religious wars were a destructive force in nations from which they immigrated. They didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the old world … still, they bowed heads.
Our national contradiction over faith’s interaction with governmental matters has been with us since our founding.
Cathy Travis, a 25 year veteran of Capitol Hill is an author of several books, including the acclaimed CONSTITUTION TRANSLATED FOR KIDS. She is from Jonesboro, Arkansas, and is a graduate of Arkansas State University.