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Alabamans debate if forced forfeit was religious persecution

An Alabama newspaper editorial writer says his state’s governor exceeded her authority as governor when demanding the state athletic association give her answers about why it didn’t allow a sports scheduling change to accommodate a school’s religious beliefs.

Oakwood Adventist Academy in Huntsville, Ala., was scheduled to play a semi-final basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 19. The school is affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventist denomination, which observes the Saturday Sabbath — meaning the team couldn’t play at that time because of its religious convictions.

However, the SDA’s Sabbath observance is based on a sundown-to-sundown understanding of the day rather than a 24-hour calendar day, so the team had requested that its game be moved from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., after the sunset, which would have allowed it to play. Their scheduled opponents did not object to the suggested rescheduling, but the Alabama High School Athletic Association did not allow it, forcing Oakwood to forfeit.

The Dothan Eagle’s editorial writer continues the story :

“Granting an exemption or making an exception for any reason, every time one is requested, would be chaotic. The member schools write the rules and expect the AHSAA to govern their rules and policies consistently with both public and private members,” Alvin Briggs, executive director of the athletic association, wrote.

After Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey got wind of the story, she wrote a letter to the association to convey “profound concern about the alleged (treatment)” of the school. The letter reads in part

“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. Sincere faith brings Alabamians together. It is a source of comfort during times of challenge. And it drives Alabamians to make their communities better. Indeed, a sincere commitment to faith is one of the defining hallmarks of our great state.


“With all this in mind, 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.”

The Dothan Eagle’s opinion writer took exception to the governor penning the letter, calling some of her insinuations “disingenuous.”

It’s unfortunate for the players that the game was forfeited, and reflects a failure of the school’s coaches and the athletic association staff to identify and address potential conflicts in advance.


However, Ivey’s suggestion that religious persecution could be at play is disingenuous. Apparently the association rules disallow scheduling changes, period.


“The idea that a team like Oakwood could be denied a chance to compete based upon its faith — without even the most modest of accommodations — is deeply disturbing,” Ivey wrote.


This is a matter best left to the association leadership and the leaders of member schools, who determine the rules by which the association operates.

The AHSAA shared its response in late February, stepping outside its usual guidelines. The organization’s director said the AHSAA was following a 2017 agreement it had signed with Oakwood. WHNT in Huntsville, Ala., reports:

AHSAA Executive Director Alvin Briggs sent his response Thursday. He opened his letter by saying, “While AHSAA guidelines do not normally allow me to respond to outside inquiries about student eligibility or actions assessed to member schools, as the Honorable Governor of the State of Alabama, I felt a response would be important in this case.”


Briggs said there were concerns from the AHSAA’s Central Board when Oakwood applied to join in 2017 because the school is a Seventh Day Adventist organization that observes the Sabbath from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday and many championship events are held on Fridays and Saturdays.


“Therefore, Oakwood agreed to follow the rules of the AHSAA and agreed to participate in all playoff games without petition, or forfeit. That statement was provided to the AHSAA in writing, and the AHSAA responded in writing, accepting their agreement to participate in championship play, without petition or forfeit,” he added.

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