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Tennis, the Sabbath, and the Courts

Tennis, the Sabbath, and the Courts

Located just off Interstate 5 between Seattle and Portland, Chehalis, Washington, is a small town of 7,600 people. Nicknamed the “Rose City,” it’s the county seat of Lewis County and was once mentioned—negatively—on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy.

Now, Chehalis has another claim to fame, or at least notoriety: Star high school tennis player Joelle Chung, who describes herself as “a faithful Seventh-day Adventist,” was forced to sit out the team’s postseason competition because the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) scheduled the state championships on a Saturday. Ironically, regular tennis matches for high school teams are scheduled on weekdays apart from the hours of the Sabbath—one of the reasons Chung and her brother Joseph have chosen the sport. It’s only the tournaments that are scheduled for Sabbath time periods.

Forced Out Because of Her Faith

“As a senior, it was hard giving everything I had to support my team all season, only to be forced to sit out the entire postseason simply because of my faith,” said Joelle Chung in a statement released by Becket Law, the advocacy group representing her and Joseph. “I’ll never get the chance to play for a state championship again, but hopefully this case will protect other Seventh-day Adventists like my brother from having to choose between sports and their faith.”

According to Becket, “The WIAA has a rule that to participate in the tournament, athletes must certify that they will be able to participate in all levels of the competition with exceptions for injury, illness, or unforeseen events. When the Chungs asked the WIAA to make an exception for their family’s religious beliefs, the WIAA refused.”

The Chung family is going to court because, they reason, “The WIAA discriminates when it makes exceptions for secular reasons for withdrawing from competition, like injury, illness, and unforeseen events—but not for religion.”

“No student-athlete should be kept from competition because of their faith,” Joe Davis, an attorney at Becket, said in the statement. “The WIAA’s rule hurts religious minorities and students of many faiths who honor the longstanding practice of keeping the Sabbath.”

Apparently, the WIAA didn’t remember its own history: In 2017, the group settled a lawsuit with parents at a Jewish school in Seattle over the scheduling of tournaments on the Sabbath. “Based on recommendations from legal counsel, the WIAA executive board voted earlier this month to make accommodations to the Class 1B and 2B state volleyball tournaments for schools that recognize the Saturday Sabbath, the WIAA announced,” according to a Seattle Times report.

The question of interscholastic athletic competition on the Sabbath is not unique to Chehalis, to public schools, or even to members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In 2012, Orthodox Jewish students in Houston won an appeal to the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), getting their playoff and championship games rescheduled apart from the Sabbath hours. The students of the Robert M. Beren Academy benefitted in part from earlier appeals by the Burton Adventist Academy in Fort Worth for Sabbath accommodation.

“The kids deserve whatever they earned,” Klein explained in a 2012 telephone interview with Adventist Review magazine. “If they earned the chance to play for a state championship, let them play for it.”

Defending Religious Liberty for All

Whatever one’s views on interscholastic athletic competition—and some Sabbathkeepers believe such competition should be avoided—the question of fairness in both public and private school associations is an important one. It could be argued that this is especially true in the case of public schools, which are supposed to benefit all students, regardless of race, color, or creed. By not making an accommodation for the Chung siblings, the WIAA is discriminating on the grounds of religion, and as Becket advocates, that’s a violation of federal law.

Defending religious liberty for those who observe the Bible Sabbath is an important concern, we believe, for all people, regardless of whether or not one chooses to participate. In America, citizens are protected under the Bill of Rights when it comes to the “free exercise” of their religious beliefs, not merely the freedom to believe certain things.

That is why this blog has followed the case of Darrell Patterson, a former trainer for the Walgreens drug store chain who was fired because he wouldn’t work on the Sabbath even though the firm previously accommodated Patterson’s faith needs. It’s also why we reported on the case of Jiman Han, a medical student in the Republic of Korea who faced difficulty completing his studies because of Sabbath-work requirements. And it’s why exam-scheduling victories for Sabbathkeeping students in Brazil and Kenya is worth our notice.

For many Christians, Observing the seventh-day Sabbath is a blessing, both for the people who keep the day and for the society that accommodates such practices. Seeking legitimate legal remedies when conflicts arrive—even over something as seemingly unimportant as a high school tennis competition—is appropriate as part of the greater need to reinforce religious liberty. As with so many things in life, the free exercise of religion needs to be defended at every point in society, lest it be lost.

If you’re wondering why the seventh-day Sabbath is of such importance, a resource previously recommended here might be of use: Why God Said Remember is a book explaining the significance and meaning of the seventh day.

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