A Delaware State University (DSU) student claims she lost an athletic scholarship because she refused to attend her coach’s church. Natalia Mendieta filed suit against the university earlier this month.According to DelwareOnline.com, Mendieta alleges that DSU volleyball coach LaKisya Killingsworth required student athletes to attend services at Calvary Assembly of God. Calvary is a Pentecostal congregation affiliated with the Assemblies of God, and Mendieta, who is Catholic, says she attended services there under duress.“Ms. Mendieta believed that her relationship with Coach Killingsworth would suffer if she refused to attend the coach’s church and, if she did, she would receive less playing time and her scholarship might not be renewed for the following year,” the lawsuit says.
Killingsworth reportedly told students she “felt they all needed to have more God and Jesus in their lives.” She organized team prayers before games, handed out Bibles, and required students to attend Bible studies in addition to church services. The complaint also says that she “strongly encouraged” players to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.Although Mendieta initially complied with the coach’s orders, she says she became increasingly uncomfortable with the prospect of attending Pentecostal services. And she wasn’t alone: One player even left the team in response to the constant proselytization.
Mendieta says she eventually wrote her coach a letter informing her that she would no longer attend Calvary. And that, she says, is when the trouble started.
According to the lawsuit, Killingsworth did not react particularly well to Mendieta’s letter. She says that the coach then told her she didn’t care which church she attended and told the team church attendance and Bible studies were now optional. Despite this, the coach kept adding “church” to the team’s official calendar.
Mendieta also claims that after her letter, Killingsworth singled her out for criticism.
When she and a few other players missed a curfew by a few minutes, Killingsworth informed her that she had lost her scholarship. The other players, however, kept theirs. Mendieta says she depended on the scholarship to pay for her education and is now struggling to support her continued studies.
Hence the lawsuit. It describes Killingsworth’s actions as an “inappropriate and unconstitutional endorsement of religion by a secular state entity,” and names the coach, DSU’s former athletic director Candy Young, and DSU itself as plaintiffs. It also claims Young knew about the coach’s proselytizing and did nothing to stop it – and even that Young approved Killingsworth’s decision to revoke Mendieta’s scholarship.
In comments to the press, DSU stated that Killingsworth just left the university for a position at another school. Young left the athletics department, but is still employed by DSU.
These staff changes, however, don’t mitigate the harm Mendieta alleges in her suit. As you may have guessed from the name, DSU is a public university. And that means Killingsworth, during her time there, was a public employee. The volleyball team is not a religious ministry; it’s a secular athletic program funded by Delaware taxpayers.
Killingsworth had a responsibility to respect the constitutional rights of her student athletes, and if Mendieta’s allegations are accurate, she egregiously betrayed that responsibility. There are a number of religious colleges in the country that would have permitted her to engage in these religious activities. DSU, however, is not among them.
Worst of all, Killingsworth’s actions have severely impacted a student’s ability to stay in school. That’s unconscionable. If Mendieta’s telling the truth, there’s no question that she should win her suit.