Rollen Stewart is not a household name. But if you watch sports on television, you’ve probably seen him. He wears a “John 3:16” T-shirt to professional golf tournaments and displays “gospel banners” in football stadiums (CT, May 18, 1984, p. 82).
The unconventional evangelist has attracted plenty of attention, not all of it positive. Stewart’s banners have been declared out of bounds by all but one of the 28 National Football League (NFL) teams. The prohibition of his signs at home games of the Washington Redskins is being challenged in a lawsuit. Attorneys affiliated with the Rutherford Institute in Manassas, Virginia, are challenging the prohibition in federal district court in Washington, D.C.
The suit was filed after the management of Washington’s RFK Stadium prevented Stewart and an associate, Stephen Francis, from displaying their signs at two games. At a January 1984 playoff game, Francis hung two 15-foot banners—reading “John 3:16”—on a railing near the 20-yard line. Both banners were torn down.
When Francis attempted to rehang them, he was threatened with arrest by security officers employed by the stadium management. After Stewart and Francis protested, a new stadium policy was enacted allowing the display of all signs except those that are “obscene or provide free advertisement of products or services.” However, the lawsuit alleges, when Stewart and Francis subsequently hung three banners at a November 1984 Redskins game, the stadium’s new general manager ordered security guards to remove the signs.
Rutherford Institute president John Whitehead calls the prohibition “clear-cut unconstitutional censorship of religious expression.” He pointed out that stadium security guards did not remove banners with nonreligious messages.
“Having opened the stadium as a public forum in which patrons express their views or comments through a particular form of speech,” the lawsuit argues, “the defendants cannot discriminate against plaintiffs on the basis of their religion.…” Rutherford Institute attorneys are asking the federal court to recognize the constitutional rights of Stewart and Francis to display their signs, and to issue a permanent injunction prohibiting further interference by stadium officials.
Meanwhile, Stewart and another associate, Bill King, are trying to outwit the NFL by wearing a new type of gospel banner to football games. The new banners are worn like a poncho. Scripture references appear when King and Stewart spread their arms. Says Stewart: “They’d have to undress us to take away our gospel signs.”
At other events, they still wear gospel T-shirts. “People often tell us they’ve seen our message,” Stewart says. “We are seed sowers.”
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