Alabama high school sports to accommodate Saturday Sabbath teams, ending federal lawsuit

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.

Oakwood Adventist Academy in Huntsville had been slated to participate in a basketball playoff game on Feb. 19, a Saturday, at 4:30 p.m. Seventh-day Adventists observe the Sabbath from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, and Oakwood said the team could not play at that hour.

The team, its opponents and two other Christian schools in the tournament agreed to swap timeslots and asked the AHSAA for accommodation.

But the association refused, triggering the forfeit. At one point, association director Alvin Briggs claimed Oakwood has signed away its right to request a change, something the school denied.

A lawsuit in federal district court followed, but the AHSAA rule change has made the action moot.

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In a 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.”

An association spokesman said the new rule did not indicate what the “certain conditions” were.

Oakwood’s forced forfeit drew attention from Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, who wrote to Mr. Briggs asking for an explanation for the turndown. She issued a statement Tuesday lauding the change.

“Today’s vote by the Alabama High School Athletic Association is absolutely a win for religious liberty, and no doubt, is a testament to the Oakwood boys and their convictions,” said Mrs. Ivey, who is a Baptist. “They stood strong in their faith and showed that good can come from a difficult situation. Here in Alabama, we will always stand up for religious freedom, and this rule change is certainly doing just that.”

According to Joseph Davis, a counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the public-interest law firm that represented the students, the AHSAA reversal could reach farther than the Huntsville school.

“It’s really a slam dunk for the First Amendment and for religious liberty in sports,” Mr. Davis said in a telephone interview. “What it ensures is that championships are decided on the field and on the court rather than based on a school’s religious beliefs. So it’s a great win, and we hope it’ll be influential in athletics across the country.”

Orlan Johnson, religious liberty director for the Adventist Church’s North American headquarters in Columbia, Maryland, said the win was also meaningful for the Oakwood Academy students’ spiritual lives.

“It lets them understand that their church is willing to fight for them,” Mr. Johnson told The Washington Times. “In our faith-based organizations, you have so many of them that have been leaving much because they’re not sure about the voice that their church has. I think this is an opportunity for them to see firsthand how their church is willing to fight on behalf of those things that may not be intrinsically connected to you coming into a church building or being part of a church worship service.”

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