HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – The Oakwood Adventist Academy has filed a lawsuit against the Alabama High School Athletic Association after the school’s boys basketball team was forced to forfeit a playoff game due to religious observance. The lawsuit claims the team’s First Amendment rights were violated.
The South Central Conference of Seventh-day Adventists filed the lawsuit against the AHSAA on behalf of Oakwood Academy on Tuesday.
The Mustangs were scheduled to play against Skyline in a regional semi-final game on Saturday, February 19th at 4:30 p.m. The time of the game was an issue because the Adventist faith observes the Sabbath from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. 4:30 p.m. that day was before sunset.
School officials asked the AHSAA if they could have their game switched to the 7:30 p.m. time slot after reaching out to the pair of teams playing at that time and getting their okay to switch. The AHSAA told denied the change, twice, and the Mustangs were forced to forfeit their best season in school history.
In a recorded phone call on May 4th, Vice President and Senior Council for Becket Religious Liberty for All, Eric Rassbach, gave more insight to the suit. He said, “we’ve said that this violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and if necessary we will take it all the way up to the Supreme Court if we have to, vindicate these kids’ rights.”
“This is not just another day of the week for us,” explained Todd McFarland, associate general counsel for the General Conference for Seventh-day Adventists. “The Sabbath is the day we stop our work, rest and worship God. It is far more important to the members of the team to keep holy the Sabbath than play in any playoff game. The AHSAA should have made the simple schedule change – agreed upon by all teams – instead of making Oakwood Academy choose between faith and basketball.”
Oakwood Academy asks in the lawsuit to have its right to religious accommodations vindicated in federal court, according to court documents.
Court documents also state Oakwood Academy and the South Central Conference want a permanent injunction stopping the AHSAA from refusing to accommodate religious requests for schedule changes, award compensatory damages and nominal damages, and pay attorney fees.
The lawsuit claims five counts of violations of the First Amendment against the AHSAA and is asking for a jury trial on the issues.
The suit states, in part: “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. As a result, Saturday Sabbath observers like Plaintiff are forced to forfeit any basketball contest occurring on the Sabbath. Thus, they are forced out of competitive play solely on account of their religious beliefs.”
The full complaint can be read here.
The situation made it to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey who demanded answers from the AHSAA in a February letter. She asked a series of questions to the organization including: “Did the decision to deny the religious accommodation violate any AHSAA policy or was it permissible?”
AHSAA Executive Director Alvin Briggs responded to Ivey’s letter.
“Oakwood agreed to follow the rules of the AHSAA and agreed to participate in all playoff games without petition, or forfeit. That statement was provided to the AHSAA in writing, and the AHSAA responded in writing, accepting their agreement to participate in championship play, without petition or forfeit,” Briggs said in his response.
Jim Williams, an attorney with Melton, Espy & Williams P.C. representing the AHSAA released a statement on Thursday, expressing their disappointment that Oakwood Adventist Academy has sued the AHSAA, as the school’s membership was voluntary.
“When Oakwood applied for membership, there was a very specific discussion concerning the fact that playoff games were usually on Friday and Saturday. Knowing this, Oakwood acknowledged in writing that they were ‘expected to participate in all scheduled playoff games without petition or forfeit’ and their request to join the AHSAA was granted with the understanding Oakwood “agrees to participate in all championship play without petition or forfeit,” the statement read in part.
The statement also claimed that the Regional Championship schedule had been posted on the AHSAA website since July of 2021, six months before the February 19, 2022, game in question. The statement says Oakwood waited until February 16, 3 days before the game, to voice any concerns.
Williams said the AHSAA hopes that the matter can be resolved without litigation.