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Santa Maria parochial school faces discrimination lawsuit for canceling football game against team with female player

Valley Christian Academy
Valley Christian Academy is facing a gender discrimination lawsuit. (Dave Alley/KEYT)

SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- A parochial school in Santa Maria faces a gender discrimination lawsuit after refusing to play a high school football game against an opponent with a girl on its team.

In the suit filed last Wednesday, plaintiff Sonya Herrera alleges Valley Christian Academy (VCA) violated the civil rights of her daughter, identified as E.H., by canceling a football game against Cuyama Valley High School.

The lawsuit states VCA canceled the game because E.H., a wide receiver on the Cuyama Valley team, is a girl.

Defendants listed in the lawsuit are Valley Christian Academy, First Baptist Church, lead pastor Joel Mikkelson and 30 others who are unnamed.

Valley Christian Academy is the educational ministry of First Baptist Church, Mikkelson is the school superintendent and lead pastor.

The school is accused of "antiquated, misogynistic ideals and policies," which sought to minimize the girl's "athletic ability and deprive her of athletic opportunities strictly due to her gender."

The 24-page complaint includes a letter written by Mikkelson to Cuyama District Superintendent Alfonso Gamino sent soon after VCA hosted a scrimmage with Cuyama Valley on March 13, 2021.

According to the complaint, the scrimmage was played without issue, while the plaintiff had her helmet on for the entire game, indicating no one on VCA knew she was female.

However, upon the conclusion of the game, the lawsuit states "E.H." removed her helmet, revealing to the VCA players she was a female and was then subjected to glares and head shaking.

The lawsuit said "E.H." felt "humiliated, embarrassed and shocked by the public display of unwelcomed reactions and conduct" by the VCA players, as well as coaches, athletic director(s), and school administrators."

In the letter attached to the lawsuit, Mikkelson said the VCA Parent/Student Handbook states, "There is to be no physical contact between boys and girls at Valley Christian Academy."

Mikkelson also wrote, "As we train our young men in this world, we want to train them rigorously to admire and value women as precious and worthy of respect. We recognize that we live in a society that exploits women and treats them as commodities rather than with the respect and honor that they deserve. Football is a violent game, and we understand the value of such in training our young men within the boundaries of an organized sport. However, because of the nature of its contact, we will not play a team that has a female as part of its football team."

The lawsuit states Valley Christian Academy canceled the regular season game against Cuyama Valley after the scrimmage, leaving a hole in both schools' schedule.

”Valley Christian intentionally discriminated against this young woman based on her gender by deliberately refusing to allow her to play football on their premises because she is female," said Andrew Miltenberg, an attorney representing the girl player. "Valley Christian, as a member school of the California Interscholastic Federation, was aware of its obligations under the auspices of the CIF and its obligations to comply with Title IX. Despite such knowledge, Valley Christian created an environment which facilitated and promoted discrimination against females in interscholastic athletics for the purpose of depriving female athletes of educational opportunities based on sex. Teaching young men to objectify women is irresponsible and perpetuates demeaning gender stereotypes. Valley Christian must not continue to shame and patronize women. "

The complaint alleged the girl "has sustained, and will continue to sustain, substantial injury, damage, and loss, including, but not limited to, mental anguish; severe emotional distress; injury to reputation, loss of educational opportunities; and loss of possible future career prospects."

The lawsuit seeks damages in an amount to be determined at trial.

In a statement sent to NewsChannel 3-12, Cuyama Superintendent Gamino said, "One of the important goals of Title IX is to promote equal opportunities for female athletes.  The Cuyama Joint Unified School District (CJUSD) strongly supports this goal. Athletic training and competition help equip our young people to be well-rounded citizens — both physical and mentally. Such an opportunity ought to be equally available to both our female students and our male students. CJUSD does not support any policy or practice which may tend to discourage our youth, female or male, from engaging in athletic endeavors. Our female athlete is an  exceptional student-athlete, an asset to our football program, and destined for great things on and off the field. We are very proud of her. We are very proud of all of our male and female student athletes."

Reached by phone, Mikkelson said the church and school have not received the lawsuit and could not provide further comment.

The two schools are scheduled to play a game on Oct. 16 in Santa Maria.

When asked about the status of the game, Gamino said Cuyama Valley is preparing as if the game will be played, while Mikkelson said "no comment."

Article Topic Follows: Education

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Dave Alley

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