The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico has filed a lawsuit on behalf of three Muslim athletes against New Mexico State University, claiming that head football coach Hal Mumme removed them from the team in 2005 because of their religious beliefs.
The lawsuit charges Mumme, university provost William Flores and the university Board of Regents with religious discrimination and violations of the athletes’ right to freely exercise their religion.
“Universities are supposed to be places of evolved thinking and reason, not of base intolerance and bigotry,” said ACLU of New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson. “They are supposed to rise above the knee-jerk prejudices that sometimes afflict our society. In this case, the university failed its purpose and a coach indulged in those prejudices to assert his own religious preferences over the players and the team.”
The ACLU is representing Mu-Ammar Ali, who played on athletic scholarship for the team for three consecutive seasons, and twin brothers Anthony and Vincent Thompson, who joined the team in 2004.
According to the lawsuit, when Mumme took over as coach in Spring 2005, he established a practice of having players lead the Lord’s Prayer after each practice and before each game. Ali and the Thompsons allege that the practice made them feel like outcasts and caused them to pray separately from the other players.
The suit further claims that not long after Mumme learned that Ali and the Thompsons were Muslim, he prohibited the Thompsons from attending the spring 2005 training camp and questioned Ali about his attitudes towards Al-Qaeda.
The Thompsons were discharged from the team on September 2, 2005, allegedly because they moved their belongings to an unapproved locker and were labeled “troublemakers.” On October 9, 2005, Mumme left Ali a message on his home answering machine that his jersey was being pulled and that he was discharged from the NMSU football team.
“Being a coach doesn’t give someone the right to make a football team into a religious brotherhood,” Simonson said. “University coaches are tax-paid role models. The public has a right to expect that they are going to model behaviors that we endorse as a society. Religious intolerance is not one of those behaviors.”
New Mexico State University Denies Wrongdoing
New Mexico State University General Counsel Bruce Kite responded to the civil rights suit, days after it was announced, claiming that the school “did nothing wrong.”
Saying the school will contest the suit, Kite said NMSU will “file the appropriate paperwork, but our position is that we did nothing wrong and we deny the allegations.”
The school actually became aware of the festering legal problem last fall and hired the Albuquerque law firm of Miller Stratvert to conduct an internal investigation. Reportedly, the firm absolved the university of responsibility after interviewing the football coaching staff, athletics department personnel and student-athletes. Nevertheless, Mumme apologized at a press conference last November to his team for “any unintentional actions” that might have offended anyone.
The plaintiffs are represented by Las Cruces attorney Joleen Youngers and ACLU staff attorney George Bach.
Religion and College Sports Has Been A Touchy Subject
Situations where Christianity is being pitted against other religions been played out across the country in recent years, putting athletic directors in a very difficult spot.
At Georgia, Cheerleading Coach Marilou Braswell was fired after a Jewish cheerleader complained that Braswell treated non-Christian cheerleaders less favorably. She sought to be re-instated, which a federal judge denied, writing:
“She refused to accept the judgment of her superiors and allowed her vehement disagreement to cloud her judgment and put herself in an adversarial position with the university and the athletic association.
“Ordering her reinstatement would cause more harm to the university than would be warranted for an interest in reinstating her to vindicate her constitutional rights.”
At the Air Force Academy, Superintendent Lt. Gen. John Rosa told the Colorado Springs Gazette what Head Football Coach Fisher DeBerry, a devoutly religious man, can and can’t do before games.
Rosa said DeBerry can lead postgame prayers, as long as they don’t promote a particular religion. “He understands he has a right to express his beliefs, but any type of coercion isn’t allowed,” Rosa said.
Rosa’s policy is backed by surveys the academy conducted that showed that some cadets feel Christians get preferential treatment at the school and that non-Christians have reported being harassed, according to the Gazette.
In fact, in November, academy officials asked DeBerry to remove a locker room banner saying “I am a Christian first and last. . . . I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.”
Swarthmore’s Tom Krattenmaker, who is an author on the subject, echoed Rosa’s philosophy on team prayers recently telling LICA.
“I wouldn’t ban locker room prayer, but I would suggest that coaches keep
it ‘generic’ or in the mode of civil religion, that they steer clear of a
prayer that’s explicitly Christian,” Krattenmaker said. “The fact is, a good number of players are bound to have different beliefs, or no religion belief at all, and in
a ‘public’ setting (i.e. a state-supported educational institution) that should be respected.”
ADs, even those at religious institutions, are speaking of tolerance.
“Cabrini College is very proud of our heritage as a Catholic institution,” Leslie Danehy, the AD at Cabrini College, recently told LICA. “However, religion is a personal matter and our coaches respect it as such. Embracing diversity is a valued component of our institution’s values and that transcends our Catholic roots.
“When a Cabrini Athletic Coach recruits a prospective student-athlete, they are researching and assessing that student’s academic ability, athletic ability, character, and how that individual may fit into our culture as a NCAA Division III, liberal arts institution.
“Most institutions are savvy enough to understand the global society we live in and what respect for diversity means within this global society.”