Faith leaders urge Redskins owner Dan Snyder and NFL to change team’s name

Dozens of area clergy members have signed a letter to the owner of the Washington Redskins and the commissioner of the National Football League, calling on the team to recognize that “words can cause great pain” and change its name.

“The derogatory term ‘redskin’ offends many Native Americans and others in this country,” said the letter signed by 61 faith leaders. “This word, defined in the dictionary as a slur, should not be publicly marketed and celebrated in America, which is built on the ideals of respect and inclusion.”

The missive marks the latest effort in the push to change the team’s name and was endorsed by leaders across faith communities, including Lutheran, Baptist, Jewish, United Church of Christ, Buddhist and Muslim.

Among those signing the letter were Alton B. Pollard III, dean of the Howard University School of Divinity; the Rev. Luis Leon of St. John’s Church, attended by every president since 1816; the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith of the 150-year-old Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Washington; Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine; and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s fiery former pastor in Chicago.

“Each of us, regardless of our religious tradition, gender, or the color of our skin, is created in the image of the Almighty,” the letter said. “We should all strive to treat one another with dignity, respect and compassion, just as we would like to be treated ourselves.”

Team owner Daniel Snyder has said he would never change the name and described it in a letter to fans as a “badge of honor.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said that ultimately the decision is Snyder’s but that “if one person’s offended, we have to listen.”

On Thursday, Native American leaders and politicians gathered at the Rayburn House Office Building to brief congressional members and their staffs about the harmful effects of using American Indians as sports mascots.

The event, hosted by the National Congress of American Indians, featured a panel of speakers that included D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who pushed for a resolution passed by the council last month calling on the team to change its name, and Suzan Harjo, the original plaintiff in a case challenging the team’s trademark protection. The Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, senior minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in the District, also attended.

Hagler was behind the effort to gather signatures for the letter from faith leaders. In October, he held a meeting in the basement of his church and called on the dozens of faith and community leaders who had gathered there to join the fight. “Fact is, very often things are allowed to live on because we remain silent,” he said at the time. “It’s time for us to break any silence and just raise up the issue the way it needs to be raised up.”

Ray Halbritter, a representative of the Oneida Indian Nation, also spoke that day, telling those in attendance that “symbols matter, words matter.”

“This is not a fight we could do by ourselves or should do by ourselves,” he said.

The Oneida Nation emerged this year as one of the more powerful forces behind the push to change the name, airing “Change the Mascot” radio ads across the nation.

In the tribe’s latest ad, set to run in the Washington area this weekend, it’s Hagler’s voice that will be heard.

“This is not just a civil rights issue — it is a moral issue,” Hagler says in the ad. “I hope that whatever your particular religious tradition, you will also join this campaign.”