Fourth Muslim Football Player to be Added to Suit Over Religion

Mar 2, 2007

A former football player at New Mexico State University wants to join a lawsuit brought by three other former players, who allege that head football coach Hal Mumme removed them from the team in 2005 because of their religious beliefs.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the original suit on behalf of the three players — Mu’Ammar Ali and brothers Anthony and Vincent Thompson – last August. Seeking to join that suit is Jacob Wallace, a running back with the Aggies from 2002 through 2006.
Like the other plaintiffs, Wallace alleges that he was subjected “to an environment that was actively hostile to his religion,” according to his complaint.
When Mumme took over as coach in Spring 2005, according to the complaint, he established a practice of having players lead the Lord’s Prayer after each practice and before each game. Ali and the Thompson’s 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 Thompson’s were Muslim, he prohibited the Thompson’s from attending the spring 2005 training camp and questioned Ali about his attitudes towards Al-Qaeda.
The Thompson’s 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,” said ACLU of New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson. “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 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.
“Universities are supposed to be places of evolved thinking and reason, not of base intolerance and bigotry,” said 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.”


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