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An Alabama Christian Academy Celebrates a Sabbath Victory

An Alabama Christian Academy Celebrates a Sabbath Victory

Editor’s note: We previously covered this story in a blog. Read it here.

Alabama is part of America’s Bible Belt, which is why its Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA)— “the state actor authorized to schedule and oversee inter-scholastic sports and activities within the State of Alabama”—should have understood Christian religious conviction.

Earlier in the year, when a Seventh-day Adventist high school, Oakwood Adventist Academy, asked to not play a basketball game scheduled on the seventh-day Sabbath, the AHSAA refused to reschedule. Even though the requested change would have meant moving the game up only a few hours later, and though all the other teams involved agreed to the change, the AHSAA did not budge.

As a result, the team, the Mustangs, could not play a crucial game and thereby forfeited, denying them a shot at the state finals.

Many were angered by the AHSAA’s stance; the story even made national news. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey wrote to the AHSAA seeking answers. Meanwhile, right after the team’s forfeiture, Ivey met with the players in her office and praised their convictions.She issued this statement: “Alabamians and even folks around the country have been in total admiration of the young men on the Oakwood Adventist Academy basketball team. These boys stuck by their convictions, pointing out that sometimes it hurts to obey God. No doubt, these boys are reminding us all that when we work together and do what is right, we will be better off. As one player noted, God challenged them, and they passed the test.” 

From Anglicans to Zoroastrians

And that was that. Or was it?

Realizing that something like this could happen to the school again, the South Central Conference of Seventh-day Adventists sought help from the courts. And why not? In a country that pioneered religious freedom, it’s common sense that people should not be penalized in this way for following their religious convictions—especially when, as in this case, the problem could have been easily and reasonably solved.

The lawsuit, South Central Conference of Seventh-day Adventists v. Alabama High School Athletic Association, was filed before the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. The lawyers were from a religious liberty organization called Becket, which describes itself as “a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths.”

Says Becket, “We like to say we’ve defended the religious rights of people from ‘A to Z,’ from Anglicans to Zoroastrians.” And because “S,” as in Seventh-day Adventists, comes between A and Z, and because Becket saw the religious discrimination being applied by the AHSAA, they took on the case. After all, the name of the church, Seventh-day Adventist, shows just how seriously its members take the fourth commandment, which calls people to rest and worship on the seventh day (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown).

“Bureaucratic Intransigence”

Oakwood Adventist Academy, whose roots go back to 1896, “is the oldest and largest Black SDA school in the United States, and one of the longest continuously operating Black private schools in the US.” The suit said that its religious beliefs prohibit it from participating in competitive basketball games on the Sabbath— “a day of rest and worship that Adventists observe every week.” Becket argued that the AHSAA’s refusal to accommodate brought the team “to a stark choice: either abandon their sincerely held religious beliefs or forfeit the chance to compete.” 

Becket also claimed that “this dispute arises from religious discrimination by the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) against Oakwood Adventist Academy (Oakwood Academy) in refusing to accommodate its Seventh-day Adventist religious beliefs in the scheduling of state high-school basketball championship tournaments, for no reason other than the purest bureaucratic intransigence.”

Likely not wanting a drawn-out and expensive court battle, the AHSAA agreed last week to make the changes needed for Oakwood students to play without violating their religious convictions in the future. “The Alabama High School Athletic Association agreed Tuesday to accommodate Saturday Sabbath schools, six months after a Huntsville high school basketball team was forced to forfeit a tournament game, sparking a federal lawsuit. … The new rules, allowing religious accommodations in playoff scheduling, will take effect in the 2023–2024 school year, the AHSAA said.”

In its own statement, the AHSAA said it “approved a new rule allowing schools to request a religious accommodation during championship play when certain conditions are met. Other state associations and the NCAA have adopted similar rules.”

Becket has since dropped the lawsuit.

Thankfully, this issue should not be a problem for the Mustangs again, even though their keeping of the seventh-day Sabbath, as opposed to the common worship day of Sunday, puts them out of the mainstream. (It is interesting to note here that the AHSAA does not schedule games on Sundays.)

Violate the Commandments?

It’s not hard to understand the thinking behind the Oakwood students’ refusal to play competitive sports on the seventh-day Sabbath. It is, after all, one of the Ten Commandments—and the Bible is explicit about it: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates” (Exodus 20:8–10).

To learn more about the fourth commandment, why it matters, and why a team would take such a stance, check out this infographic about the Sabbath day

This article contributed by Clifford Goldstein
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