High school players take stand over Sabbath
School sues Alabama sports officials over refusal to accommodate religious observance
An Alabama high school basketball team that does not play Saturday daytime games as a matter of religious conviction took its First Amendment fight to federal court last week.
Oakwood Adventist Academy in Huntsville forfeited a state tournament game in February rather than play on the Sabbath. The Seventh-day Adventist school’s complaint claims the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) violated its religious liberty by denying its request for a three-hour schedule change to play a state semifinal game. As a result, the Mustangs, the school’s varsity team, lost out on a possible championship.
Seventh-day Adventists believe the Sabbath lasts from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown. Similar to many other Christians who keep Sunday as their Sabbath, Adventists spend Saturday in worship and rest. AHSAA had two games scheduled for Saturday, one before sunset and one after. The century-old school asked the association to switch the schedule so its team could play the post-sundown slot. AHSAA refused.
“We’re not asking to change a venue, we’re not seeking to change a date,” Calvin Morton, Oakwood’s school athletic director and basketball coach, told WHNT-TV in February. “We’re just simply asking to change a 4:30 time to a 7:30 time to accommodate our religion and our faith.”
The 27-page complaint accuses the state-sanctioned athletic association of religious discrimination: “Although AHSAA schedules no state championship tournament play on Sundays, and although it allows for the rescheduling of contests for nonreligious reasons, AHSAA has categorically refused to grant scheduling requests to accommodate other religious observances.” In contrast, the complaint notes the NCAA requires religious accommodation for member schools.
In a Feb. 22 letter, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey wrote she was “most disturbed to read about Oakwood’s alleged treatment at the AHSAA’s basketball tournament,” adding, “Few things are more important to Alabamians than their faith.”
But the athletic association refused to back down. “Granting an exemption or making an exception for any reason every time one is requested would be chaotic,” AHSAA executive director Alvin Briggs wrote in a letter to Ivey days later. He said the school had agreed to abide by the association’s rules when it applied for membership.
Becket Law’s Eric Rassbach, who is representing Oakwood, said the AHSAA’s hard line on accommodations is inconsistent with routine religious accommodation policies in college sports and in the employment context. Nor is it a concern unique to Adventists, but one that adherents to any religion could face. “If I value my faith, I really should value the ability of my fellow Americans to be able to exercise their faith,” Rassbach said.
While it’s too late for this year’s Mustangs, a conclusion to the lawsuit in their favor may mean other Seventh-day Adventist teams don’t get sidelined from tournament games in the future. The school is asking for an order barring the athletic association from refusing to make future religious accommodations.
For team captain Raynon Andrews, what’s at stake is bigger than a single game. “I’m always going to stand firm in my religion,” he told WHNT-TV. “We won’t back down just because of a basketball game. It’s bigger than basketball.”
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