The American Civil Liberties Union wants to know why a student athlete at Garden City Community College was kicked off the basketball team after he continued shooting baskets during the playing of the national anthem.
Rasool Samir, a Muslim, was sent home to Philadelphia two days later and has not returned to the school since.
In a letter dated Nov. 9 to John Green, the school’s athletics director, ACLU-Kansas attorney Lauren Bonds wrote that any disciplinary action taken against Samir for abstaining from the anthem “is antithetical to our American values and a violation of his First Amendment rights.”
Green has offered two different explanations for Samir’s departure. He told the Garden City Telegram that Samir left the team of his own accord. Several days later, he told a television station that Samir was dismissed due to a “violation of team rules” after the anthem episode.
Bonds asked Green to clarify the school’s position and to provide any information “that would help allay our concern that Samir was unlawfully dismissed for exercising his constitutional rights.”
Bonds told KCUR that Green has not responded to the letter.
“If we don’t hear back soon, we’ll probably follow up, either with a phone call or reaching out to someone else at the school,” Bonds said.
Bonds added that the ACLU hopes to resolve the matter without litigation but isn’t ruling it out.
Green did not respond to requests for comment.
The incident in question took place on Nov. 1. After the pre-game warmup for the Broncbusters’ game against Sterling College ended, Samir’s teammates headed to the locker room while the anthem was played but Samir continued shooting. Samir had done the same thing before – he claims his faith allows acts of reverence only toward God – with no repercussions.
This time, however, a Broncbusters booster named Jim Howard confronted Samir on the court about “disrespecting the flag.” The Telegram reported that the two exchanged heated words, with Howard reaching to grab Samir several times. Samir was escorted off the court and, according to the Telegram, was greeted with applause from several fans as he returned to his seat.
Howard later told the Telegram: “I’ve had enough of disrespecting our flag. I’ve been raising money for 32 years for this college, trying to help pay for scholarships for these kids. If they’re not going to respect our flag, then they need to get off of our campus and out of Garden City.”
According to Bonds’ letter, Howard shoved Samir and tried to grab his arm multiple times. A security guard intervened and escorted Samir to the locker room, where the coach, Brady Trenkle, told him to return to his dorm.
The next evening, Samir met with the coaching staff and Trenkle asked him to explain his actions. Samir referred to his religious convictions and noted that his abstention from the anthem had not been an issue before. Trenkle responded, “Well, we’re going to have to send you home,” according to Bonds’ letter.
Samir signed a form to drop his classes and Trenkle purchased a plane ticket for Samir to Philadelphia, his hometown. Samir departed the next day, Nov. 3, and has not returned since.
The incident comes against the backdrop of a roiling national debate over NFL players kneeling or linking arms during the national anthem. The protests were ignited last year by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the anthem to protest police brutality. President Trump poured fuel on the fire when he criticized the players and called the protests unpatriotic.
In late September, the College of the Ozarks, a private Christian college in southwest Missouri, announced that it would not participate in any game in which opposing teams took a knee or otherwise didn’t stand for the national anthem. Another private Christian school, Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colorado, also has directed its student athletes to stand for the national anthem before sporting events.
Unlike Garden City Community College, which is a public entity, College of the Ozarks and Colorado Christian are private schools and can impose whatever restrictions they wish. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion only against infringement by government actors.
In her letter to Green, Bonds noted that the U.S. Supreme Court more than 70 years ago ruled that the First Amendment bars public schools from requiring students to participate in patriotic ceremonies – in that case, saluting the American flag during the Pledge of Allegiance. She also pointed out that a year earlier, the Kansas Supreme Court held that the Kansas Constitution’s Bill of Rights bars the state from punishing students for refusing to cite the pledge.
“Samir was engaged in protected First Amendment activity when he declined to observe the national anthem,” Bonds wrote.
Bonds told KCUR that Samir was attending Garden City Community College on a basketball scholarship and that the school knew of his Muslim beliefs.
“Coach Trenkle was aware of Mr. Samir’s religious background basically since Day 1, since he got on campus, maybe even when he was recruiting Mr. Samir,” Bonds told KCUR. “He asked him some questions about his faith, what he can’t do, what he can’t eat … And as the letter mentioned, he had refrained from participating in the national anthem in at least one previous game and it wasn’t an issue.”
Dan Margolies is a senior editor and reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.