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Seventh-day Adventist school wins right to request religious exemption from games held on their Sabbath

Oakwood Adventist Academy
Members of the Oakwood Adventist Academy at Oakwood University Church in Huntsville, Ala., after forfeiting a semifinal game in a state tournament on Feb. 19, 2022. |

A historic Seventh-day Adventist Church-affiliated private school in Alabama will be exempt from sporting events that fall on their Sabbath observance after being denied an exemption for a basketball tournament game earlier this year.

Oakwood Adventist Academy of Huntsville announced Tuesday that the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) has adopted a policy that will allow requests to be made to change the schedule of games if they interfere with religious observances.

Becket Law, a firm that represented Oakwood in its litigation against the AHSAA over the earlier religious exemption denial, announced the update on its website.

“Consistent with the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s rule for religious accommodations, the new rule will guarantee that schools from minority faith traditions are not excluded from the playing field or pressured to abandon their beliefs for a shot at the big game,” read the announcement, in part.

“The First Amendment requires workable accommodations in state sports to allow participants of all faiths to compete on an equal basis.”

Founded in 1896 and one of the oldest historically African American private schools in the United States, Oakwood has been a full member of AHSAA since 2017.

In February, Oakwood’s basketball team, the Mustangs, had to forfeit the chance to advance in the state basketball playoffs because the AHSAA refused to push back a scheduled game three hours so that it would be held on Saturday evening instead of Saturday afternoon.

In contrast to most Christian denominations, Seventh-day Adventists consider the Sabbath to occur from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and treat that time as a day of rest.

The denial of a religious exemption got the attention of Gov. Kay Ivey, who sent a letter of concern to the AHSAA in February in response to its action against Oakwood.

“As I’m sure you know, few things are more important to Alabamians than their faith. And from my perspective as Governor, this is a very good thing,” wrote Ivey at the time.

“I hope you’ll understand why I was most disturbed to read Oakwood’s alleged treatment at the AHSAA’s basketball tournament — and why this episode raises some very pressing questions, not only for me but for public officials and citizens across our great state.”

For his part, AHSAA Executive Director Alvin Briggs responded to the letter soon after it was sent, noting that Oakwood had “agreed to follow the rules of the AHSAA and agreed to participate in all playoff games without petition, or forfeit.”

“Therefore, regardless of news reports and the public narrative that has been created, the AHSAA simply upheld the agreement that was made when Oakwood became a full member,” wrote Briggs.

Briggs also believed that since the AHSAA had 414 high schools and 288 middle schools involved in the association, “[g]ranting an exemption or making an exception for any reason, every time one is requested, would be chaotic.”

“Furthermore, through the legislative process of the AHSAA, Oakwood, as a member school, has had opportunities to submit proposals to change current bylaws or to create new ones,” Briggs added.

In May, Oakwood filed suit against the AHSAA, accusing the association of religious discrimination against the school for its Seventh-day Adventist beliefs.

“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,” read the lawsuit.

“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.”

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