A high school athletics organization in Washington state has been sued for religious discrimination because it allows athletes to withdraw from postseason tournaments for “unforeseen” events but not for conflicts with their religious faith.
In that case, it bans them from competing in any postseason competitions.
The case was filed by Becket against the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association on behalf of two students, identified as J.G.C. and J.N.C.
They are part of the Seventh-day Adventists, a group of millions who strictly observe the sundown Friday-to-sundown Saturday Sabbath.
Saturdays are when the WIAA schedules its championships, explains the complaint.
“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. “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.”
Becket explained Chung was barred from competing in the Washington state tennis postseason tournament because the championships fell on a Saturday.
Becket argues that no student-athlete should be kept on the sidelines for their faith when accommodations are possible. It’s asking that the rule that kept Joelle from competing be changed so that her brother Joseph can participate in the state championships this fall.
“This is not just a case of state actors failing to accommodate easily accommodatable religious exercise when it conflicts with state requirements – though it is certainly that. Rather this is also a case of a state actor taking a purely hypothetical conflict and using it to prohibit religious believers from participating fully in state high-school athletics even when there is no conflict at all,” the complaint states.
“Specifically, WIAA has interpreted its rule to prohibit players, on pain of penalty, from participating in any postseason competition if they are, or know that might be, unable to proceed through the ‘completion of the championship event.’ This means that if the final day of the state championship tournament is scheduled on a Saturday, then a Seventh-day Adventist is prohibited from competing on every other day of postseason play as well.”
The complaint says the state refused to allow an accommodation to change its rules and move the tournament to other days of the week.
J.G.C., who was undefeated during last year’s tennis season, was forced to “sit out” of postseason play because of the discrimination, the lawsuit states.
The case alleges violations of the First Amendment, the 14th Amendment, the state constitution and state law.
The action, in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, seeks court orders requiring accommodations and scheduling adjustments.
“No student-athlete should be kept from competition because of their faith,” said Joe Davis, counsel at Becket. “The WIAA’s rule hurts religious minorities and students of many faiths who honor the longstanding practice of keeping the Sabbath.”
The situation is reminiscent of the 1981 movie “Chariots of Fire,” the true story of a Christian, Eric Liddell, who was training in the United Kingdom for the 1924 Paris Olympics, but then refused to compete on his Sabbath.