An Alabama high school basketball team that does not play daytime games on Saturdays for reasons of religious belief took its First Amendment fight to federal court last week.
Oakwood Adventist Academy in Huntsville lost a state tournament game in February rather than play on the Sabbath. Seventh-day Adventist school’s complaint alleges the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) violated her religious freedom by denying her request for a three-hour schedule change to play a state semifinal game . As a result, the Mustangs, the school’s varsity team, lost an eventual championship.
Seventh-day Adventists believe that the Sabbath lasts from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. Like many other Christians who keep Sunday as a 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 change the schedule so that its team could play the slot after sunset. AHSAA declined.
“We’re not asking to change the venue, we’re not looking to change the date,” Calvin Morton, athletic director and Oakwood school basketball coach, told WHNT-TV in February. “We are simply asking to change the time from 4:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. to reflect our religion and faith.”
The 27-page complaint accuses the state-sanctioned athletic association of religious discrimination: “Although AHSAA does not schedule any state championship tournaments on Sundays, and although it allows competitions to be postponed for non-religious, AHSAA flatly refused to grant programming requests to accommodate other religious observances.In contrast, the complaint notes that the NCAA requires religious accommodations for member schools.
In a Feb. 22 letter, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey wrote that she was “very disturbed to read of Oakwood’s alleged treatment at the AHSAA basketball tournament,” adding, ” Few things are more important to Alabamians than their faith.
But the sports association refused to back down. “Granting an exemption or making an exception for any reason every time a request is requested would be chaotic,” AHSAA Executive Director Alvin Briggs wrote in a letter to Ivey a few days later. He said the school agreed to abide by the rules of the association when it applied for membership.
Eric Rassbach of Becket Law, who represents Oakwood, said AHSAA’s hard line on accommodations is inconsistent with routine religious accommodation policies in college sports and in employment settings. Nor is it a concern unique to Adventists, but one that adherents of any religion might face. “If I appreciate my faith, I should really appreciate 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 lawsuit finding in their favor could mean other Seventh-day Adventist teams won’t be left out of tournament play in the future. The school is seeking an order prohibiting the athletic association from refusing to make future religious accommodations.
For team captain Raynon Andrews, more is at stake than a single game. “I will always 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.