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Female wide receiver can proceed with discrimination lawsuit against Christian school

A federal judge said a religious school must abide by Title IX if it accepts federal pandemic-relief support and is tax-exempt.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A female football player who played on a high school team can proceed with her discrimination lawsuit against a Christian school and its affiliated church for refusing to play against her school if she was on the team.

U.S. District Judge Maame Ewusi-Mensah Frimpong this week rejected arguments by Valley Christian Academy and First Baptist Church in Santa Maria, California, that they can't be sued under Title IX of of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law that prohibits sexual discrimination at schools that receive U.S. funding.

Since the church and the school received federal pandemic-relief loans and as religious institutions are exempt from federal taxes, they are subject to Title IX requirements, according to the judge. The judge also wasn't persuaded by arguments that non-students can't sue a school for sexual discrimination or that the student, only identified as E.H., can't sue based on the school's religious beliefs.

"Despite what Valley Christian may ultimately be able to prove, her complaint, taken as true, adequately alleges that Valley Christian’s decision to ban E.H. from playing against its football team was not motivated by its religious tenets," Frimpong said. "If that is the case, and Valley Christian was instead motivated by its beliefs on gender, then E.H.’s Title IX claim is not precluded under the 'religious exception.'"

An attorney for First Baptist Church and Valley Christian Academy didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

E.H., who was 15 at the time her amended complaint was filed in December, was a student at Cuyama Valley High School in Central California and the only female player on the school's football team. In March of last year, she participated with her team in a game at Valley Christian. She had her helmet on during the entire game and none of the opposing players or spectators commented on or objected to her presence, according to the complaint.

But when she removed her helmet at the end of the game, the coaches, administrators and observers at Valley Christian glared at her and shook their heads in disbelief, according to the complaint. A few days later, First Baptist sent a letter to her school saying she wasn't welcome to participate in games at Valley Christian and that the school was changing its football schedule to avoid having to play against her.

According to that letter, Valley Christian “is guided, first, by the authority of the Bible in our lives” and “God’s word gives instructions as to how men are to treat women.” On that basis, the school prohibits contact between boys and girls.

Andrew Miltenberg, an attorney for the student, said in a statement that the judge had set a precedent for private and independent schools in California that receipt of PPP funding constitutes federal financial assistance and thus, mandates their compliance with anti-discrimination laws such as Title IX. 

"There is a scarcity of law in this area and we are pleased that a California court has addressed this matter as it gives clarity and future guidance for other jurisdictions to follow," Miltenberg said. "In the year 2022, it is unacceptable for any educational institution, public or private, to blatantly discriminate against women in this country.”

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