In a complaint filed Tuesday, Natalia Mendieta clams Delaware State University and coach LaKisya Killingsworth violated her constitutional rights in requiring her to participate in religious activities, and then in revoking her scholarship when she refused to do so.
Mendieta says shortly after Killingsworth took over as the head coach of the DSU women’s volleyball program in 2013, she “started formally incorporating religious worship into the team’s activities.”
Initially, the complaint says, Killingsworth required players to attend church services with her on Sundays; later, the coach alleged distributed bibles to her players and instructed them to pray before each match.
Mendieta says Killingsworth told students she “felt they all needed to have more God and Jesus in their lives,” and insisted that they attend weekly Bible study meetings through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a group the coach “strongly encouraged” them to join the previous semester.
Mendieta, a Roman Catholic, says she “felt extremely uncomfortable” attending Pentacostal services, and did so, “with great reluctance,” because she feared doing otherwise would hurt her relationship with her coach.
She claims that when Killingsworth was named coach she told the team members that they were all “on a one-year trial period with her,” despite the fact Mendieta and others had allegedly been led to believe their scholarships would remain active for their entire academic careers.
According to the complaint, Mendieta lived in fear of losing her scholarship, without which she would not be able to attend the university. She also worried that if she challenged the coach on the issue, she’d lose playing time.
Mendiata says her fears were ultimately realized after her “discomfort” with the mandatory religious activities “became too much to bear,” and she wrote Killingsworth a letter explaining why she didn’t want to go to the services anymore.
Afterwards, she claims, Killingsworth then became “increasingly hostile” towards her and their relationship “rapidly deteriorated,” despite her being one of the team’s top players and setting several team and conference records.
That autumn, after Mendieta and several of her teammates missed curfew by a few minutes, Killingsworth allegedly informed her that her scholarship for the 2015-16 school year would not be renewed. None of the other players who were late had their scholarships revoked, the lawsuit says.
Mendieta says she appealed the decision in accordance with university procedures, but was denied despite having remained her academic eligibility with the National Collegiate Athletics Association. The decision left her “struggling to find a way to pay” for school, she said.
According to the complaint, Killingsworth’s decision to suspend Mendieta’s scholarship was approved by Candy Young, who was then the school’s athletic director and is also named as a defendant in the suit.
Mendieta is seeking unspecified damages from the defendants for allegedly retaliating against her when she exercised her First Amendment rights, which violates both the state and federal constitutions, she says.
She is represented by David Finger of Finger & Slanina in Wilmington, Del.
Representatives from Delaware State University did not immediately return calls for comment.
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