Mormon teen sues school district, alleging religious discrimination at Reedley High

Balloons are formed into the shape of a Christian cross at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event in Oakhurst.
Balloons are formed into the shape of a Christian cross at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event in Oakhurst. Sierra Star file photo

A Reedley High School valedictorian has sued Kings Canyon Unified School District and others alleging she was denied a leadership position at her school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes club because she is Mormon.

Anne Ayers’ complaint, filed in U.S. District Court on Monday, names 15 other defendants, including Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Reedley Mennonite Brethren Church and officials with the school district and Christian club.

“She’s not looking to get rich off this case,” said attorney Jeremy Dobbins of Ayers. “She wants to make a change. She wants to set a precedent that you can’t discriminate against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any other faith, any other belief.”

Ayers, 18, graduated from Reedley High this year. She was a competitive swimmer and a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes from her freshman to junior years.

Dobbins said after Ayers was nominated by fellow students to the club’s leadership council, she was denied the position because of her Mormon faith.

The lawsuit includes a statement from an area director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to Ayers. The director allegedly wrote in an email in February 2017 that in matters of leadership, the club needs “crystal clear theology when talking with coaches and athletes” and “I’m not sure if you know the theological differences between the Christian Church n [sic] LDS, but the grace of God (sending His son to the cross to forgive our sins) is what we believe gets us to Heaven n [sic] not works.”

The complaint states Ayers received a follow-up text message from a pastor at Reedley Mennonite Brethren Church, who oversees the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes club, who allegedly wrote: “I do believe FCA and the Mormon Church believe differently about who Jesus is.”

A Kings Canyon Unified School District spokesperson said the district has a standard practice of not commenting on pending litigation. Requests for comment from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Reedley Mennonite Brethren Church were not returned on Wednesday.

Dobbins said Ayers’ case is a civil rights claim that violates the Equal Access Act, which requires federally-funded secondary schools to provide equal access to students who are members of non-curriculum groups meeting on school grounds.

He said the defendants “have broken multiple guidelines required by the act and discriminated against the religious beliefs, speech, and other constitutional protections guaranteed” to Ayers.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes describes its mission as leading “every coach and athlete into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and His church.” The group is made up of members from numerous Christian denominations.

Ayers declared her Mormon faith upon joining the club “with no indication of prejudice against her faith at that time.”

“Then all of a sudden she can’t be a full member,” Dobbins said of Ayers being denied a leadership position. “She’s basically a second-class citizen, and that’s not how we do things in this country.”

Dobbins said Ayers’ case is the first Equal Access Act action that he’s aware of to be litigated in the central San Joaquin Valley. He said Ayers and her parents contacted school officials in an attempt to remedy the situation before deciding to file a lawsuit.

“She’s 18 and she’s very nervous about this proceeding,” Dobbins said, “but is also very interested in standing for what’s right. She doesn’t want anyone else to go through what she went through. She was embarrassed. They shamed her. … She is a model of a Christian person. She is kind, helpful and treats everyone well.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge