Lawsuit alleges discrimination after Valley Christian Academy refused to play team with female player
A Title IX lawsuit was filed Wednesday against Valley Christian Academy in Santa Maria, First Baptist Church and Joel Mikkelson, the school’s superintendent and lead pastor of First Baptist.
The case is being brought by Sonya Herrera on behalf of her daughter E.H., a minor.
The lawsuit alleges sex discrimination. Valley Christian refused to play a scheduled football game against Cuyama Valley High School after it realized a young woman, E.H., is on the team.
The alleged discrimination began March 13, when the schools played a scrimmage.
E.H., a wide receiver, released her long chestnut hair from her football helmet as she walked away from the field afterward, and she heard whispers.
Mrs. Herrera, who was walking beside her, assumed the high school boys thought her 14-year-old daughter was attractive.
E.H. didn’t understand the glares — until her coach broke the news: Valley Christian refused to play the game planned for that weekend.
The team received a letter 30 days later from Joel Mikkelson, superintendent of Valley Christian Academy and lead pastor of First Baptist Church.
“As we train our young men in this world, we want to train them rigorously to admire and value women as precious and worthy of respect. . . Football is a violent game, and we understand the value of such in training our young men within the boundaries of an organized sport. However, because of the nature of its contact, we will not play a team that has a female as part of its football team,” the letter said.
Mr. Mikkelson wrote that he did not realize a woman was on the team. E.H.’s name, a conventionally female name, was published on the roster and made available to all Coast Valley League teams.
Mrs. Herrera struggled to show her daughter the letter.
“I’m pretty tough, but I cried. When I first read that, I was just beside myself. I couldn’t believe that somebody exactly in this day and age would think that way,” she told the News-Press.
Her friend told her about Title IX, and she thought about the possibility of raising a lawsuit. When she opened the letter, she asked E.H. if she’d like to contact a lawyer.
E.H. agreed with her mother. A local attorney connected them with Andrew Miltenberg, a leading Title IX attorney.
“From the minute I read (the letter), it bothered me for a whole list of reasons. So I set out to find a way to bring it to light and ask the courts to deal with it,” he said.
He had to find the connection between the private and public schools. Both are governed by the California Interscholastic Federation and participate in the athletic conference the Coast Valley League.
“Valley Christian shouldn’t have a sports team in this federation if they’re going to pick and choose,” he said.
When Valley Christian canceled, both teams became ineligible for the conference championships in the shortened, pandemic-constrained season. Mr. Mikkelson acknowledged the reality in his letter.
“We recognize that this puts you in a difficult position, specifically regarding your football schedule,” he wrote.
E.H.’s coach booked a last-minute game in Riverside. The travel was inconvenient, but the game kept the team on track for championships — which they later won.
The team supported E.H., Mrs. Herrera said. Parents grumbled a bit about the travel to Riverside but kept complaints brief.
“We live in a very small community that’s full of strong women, a lot of agriculture, horse people, cowboys. I don’t think it would have been the same outcome if it would have been somewhere else,” she said. “We’re a very tight, small community.”
Mrs. Herrera said she comes from a “line of strong women.” She aimed to raise E.H. to be strong and described Mr. Mikkelson’s letter as a “slap in the face.”
“We want each player’s dad to set an example for their son by the way he treats his mother, his wife, his sisters, his daughters and all women,” the letter said. “We want our young men to follow values that behave in various ways like holding a door open for a lady, or stepping aside to let women go first.
“We want our young men to protect and provide for their families in the future. This desire is founded on the guiding principles of the Bible regarding the care of a woman.”
E.H.’s coach, a Christian, was embarrassed the letter claimed the same faith base, Mrs. Herrera said. He called the school, but Valley Christian still refuses to play Cuyama Valley this year.
Other Christian schools play E.H. without issue.
Mr. Mikkelson did not respond to the News-Press’s request for comment.