Three public school students in Mesa, Arizona, including a team captain, were allegedly removed from their varsity softball team, in part because they did not want to start each game with a “team prayer.” According to a complaint filed in a federal court in Arizona, the three girls were “penalized for not conducting ‘team prayer’ in accordance with the directive of Joseph Goodman,” the team’s coach. Coach Goodman, allegedly acted “for himself and at the behest of certain parents that were part of the [Mormon] Church.”
The complaint paints a picture of a community where Mormon parents and students demanded the ability to micromanage other students’ lives. During a 2014 tournament, for example, the suit alleges that the plaintiffs liked to play “contemporary hip-hop and other popular music liked by teenage girls,” but that they were punished for doing so because one girl on the team thought that the music offended her “religious sensitivities.” At another point, the suit alleges that this girl’s parent monitored tweets sent by one of the three plaintiffs, and that certain “[s]ocial media postings made” by this plaintiff “were reported by certain [Mormon] Church members to Joseph Goodman at his direction and request.”
These “social media postings” allegedly also played a role in the decision to punish this plaintiff. Yet, it is unclear what exactly she said that community members found offensive. According to a brief filed by the plaintiffs’ attorney, “[w]hile Plaintiffs have asked the school and Joseph Goodman to identify the speech that materially interfered with school district operations,” the brief explains, “exactly zero information was provided.”
The school, for its part, defends its decision to punish a student for her music and out-of-school comments by arguing that Goodman had a right to sanction someone who endangered “team morale and unity.” The plaintiffs’ allegations, the school claims, “show that their music and social media activity during a school sponsored event actually disrupted at least one of their teammates, upset some parents and caused conflict among the athletes and with their coach.”
Setting aside the issue of whether Mormon students and parents in Mesa, Arizona enjoy a “heckler’s veto” that they can use to effectively shout down students that they disagree with, there is little question that the coach violated the Constitution if he actually punished students because they refused to participate in a prayer. Indeed, the coach’s alleged actions might even violate an unusually conservative vision of the Constitution. Justice Antonin Scalia has consistently argued that the wall of separation between church and state should be cut down a few sizes. Yet Scalia argued in his dissenting opinion in Lee v. Weisman that the state may not use the “threat of penalty” to “coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise.”
Punishing people who refuse to join a prayer before a softball game uses the threat of penalty to coerce them into a religious exercise. So the plaintiffs’ allegations, if proven true, may even violate Justice Scalia’s understanding of the Constitution.
On Friday, Judge John Sedwick, a George H.W. Bush appointee to the federal bench, held that at least some parts of this case could move forward, despite Goodman’s and the school district’s efforts to dismiss the case. Judge Sedwick’s order only applies to an early stage of the litigation, however, so it remains to be seen whether the plaintiffs ultimately prevail.