Jeff is that guy who misses opportunities to impart important religious values.
On March 3, 2012, the Robert M. Beren Academy Stars, an Orthodox Jewish high school basketball team, lost to Abilene Christian 46-42 in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) Class 2A state championship, an upsetting anticlimax to a sensational basketball season in which the Stars posted a 23-5 record.
But the excitement of their unlikely championship aspirations paled in comparison to the extra-athletic drama surrounding their participation in the league’s playoff series. As one of only a handful of Saturday Sabbath-observing schools in the league, the Beren Academy team found itself in conflict with the preordained playoff schedule, which held its semifinal match-ups on Friday night after sunset. Two appeals to reschedule the contest were denied by the TAPPS board, inviting a flurry of petitions and phone calls to TAPPS and its director, Edd Burleson. The conflict garnered national attention, and both ESPN SportsCenter and the New York Times covered the story. At the 25th hour, three of Beren’s star players and their parents filed a law suit against TAPPS and the Mansfield Independent School District (MISD) – host of the state championship – in U.S. District Court, claiming that the organizations had violated religious freedoms. Burleson opted to change the schedule to accommodate Beren’s Jewish Sabbath observances instead of fighting the matter in court. The Beren Stars played and won their semifinal game at 2:00pm that Friday (a few hours before the start of the Sabbath) before losing the championship game the next day.
The details of this crucible are crucial and complex, and the broad philosophical considerations concerning religious freedom and nondiscrimination tangle with the specific circumstances of the case to create a truly difficult legal and philosophical problem. The saga really began last year, when Beren joined TAPPS, an overwhelmingly Christian organization that does not hold games on Sundays (in accordance with the observance of the Christian holy day), with the understanding and agreement that irresolvable scheduling conflicts might ensue. When the Beren Stars unexpectedly made it to this year’s playoff bracket, they immediately had to deal with these conflicts. For the earlier rounds of the playoffs, Beren had worked with their opponents to find a mutually agreeable playing time that would not interfere with the Sabbath. This arrangement accorded with TAPPS bylaws, which allowed for flexible scheduling as long as all parties involved were on the same page. When it came time for the semifinal match-up, however, scheduling was such that time changes could not easily be made at the home venue to accommodate Beren, as TAPPS had only booked court time during and shortly before the Sabbath. TAPPS denied both of Beren’s appeals to find some way of rescheduling the game even though Beren’s semifinal opponent, Dallas Covenant, was willing to switch venues to accommodate Beren.
Complicating matters, TAPPS had, in a previous year, allowed a Seventh Day Adventist school soccer team (which also observes the Sabbath on Saturday) to book a different playing time and field on their own dime when a playoff game was scheduled for the Sabbath. This provided a very similar precedent to the Beren case, yet TAAPS did not consider this to be an option. TAPPS decided that adhering to rules and bylaws, avoiding complications and confusions, and setting a precedent for future years superceded other considerations in this case, and they denied Beren’s appeals. In the end, the three students and their parents filed their lawsuit, which claimed that the TAPPS bylaws were religiously discriminatory, and got their way. The Beren Stars played their championship game, and they lost a hard-fought battle by four measly points, putting an end to a storybook season.
But I don’t believe the ending for the Beren Stars was storybook at all. In fact, I find the whole ordeal to be extremely disappointing. Though the Stars won their battles both in and on the court, opportunities to learn lessons and impart crucial values were lost on both sides of the ball. TAPPS and its headstrong director, Edd Burleson, should have found some way to accommodate the Stars. More importantly, however, the Stars’ players and parents should not have filed a lawsuit to twist TAPPS’ arm.
On a philosophical level, the accusation of religious discrimination in the lawsuit reflects a greater issue with antidiscrimination laws in general. TAPPS, as a private organization, should have the right to establish bylaws in accordance with its statement of purpose. Additionally, it should have the right to exclude members on any basis whatsoever. Of course, TAPPS is not officially a Christian organization, and its purpose is to create a venue for private and parochial schools to engage in athletic and other competition. But that does not negate the fact that it is privately and voluntarily run and financed, giving it prerogative to exclude and discriminate (“discrimination” is really a neutral term, though it clearly has pejorative connotations). Additionally (and this is really the clincher), Beren joined TAPPS with the full understanding that important games might be scheduled for the Sabbath and that there could be irreconcilable scheduling conflicts. Groucho Marx famously stated, “I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.” Well I would never join a club that would treat me as a second-class member. But Beren joined the club, and they should have followed its rules. There was, of course, room for negotiation and deliberation once Beren became part of the organization, which did occur, but to file a lawsuit seems like a cover for an irresponsible decision made by the students and their parents – to join a league that didn’t really want them in the first place.
The most disappointing aspect of the lawsuit, however, is that it marked a fundamental failure on the part of the parents complicit in the suit to impart important religious values to their children. The language in the injunction reads:
The Parent Plaintiffs have had their rights to the free exercise of their religious beliefs burdened by the foregoing actions of Defendants by virtue of the fact that their children, the Student Plaintiffs, are being put to the choice of violating their own religious beliefs and the beliefs imparted by the Parent Plaintiffs to their children, or forfeiting the opportunity to participate in the State basketball championship tournament. As such, the Parent Plaintiffs have had their free exercise rights burdened by Defendants’ actions as described above.
The claim of the parent plaintiffs is that their right to the “free exercise of their religious beliefs” is being “burdened” by their children’s facing a difficult “choice.” But this argument hardly holds up for two reasons:
- The “choice” here is really non-existent. Jewish law would have expressly prohibited the Beren Stars from playing on the Sabbath for various reasons, and the choice of “violating their own religious beliefs” is one that should never have been presented as valid from the standpoint of the parents filing the suit, even as a legal technicality. In my mind, this statement equates the importance of basketball with that of religious observance, and that is simply unacceptable. Elsewhere in the injunction, the parents attempt to elevate the importance of the game by stating that its deprivation would cause “irreparable harm” to the team. If this were truly so, a case could perhaps be made that the choice of whether or not to play was indeed an impossible choice, one that burdened the players’ “free exercise of religious beliefs.” Statements made by the players themselves, however, revealed that the players were prepared to give up basketball for the sake of their religious beliefs and that they were confident in their decision to do so. They didn’t seem to be irreparably damaged by the disappointment of forfeiting their game. The parents that filed the lawsuit should have shared and nurtured this confidence.
- Even if the choice presented in the lawsuit had been a valid one, it still would not have constituted a burden to the “free exercise of their religious beliefs.” The right to practice one’s religion does not constitute a right to live a life free of conflict, and it certainly does not enjoin others to cater to the demands of one’s religion. Sure, the Beren players may have faced a difficult decision, but the choice to exercise one’s religious beliefs necessarily entails sacrifice. It certainly does not create entitlements. The TAPPS board did not state that the Beren players could not observe the Sabbath, which would have been a direct violation of their right to exercise religious beliefs. And while their refusal to move the game time did generate an unfortunate inconvenience for the players, such conflicts are commonplace in religious life. In fact, such conflicts are commonplace in life.
By filing a lawsuit, the parents of the Beren basketball players communicated the wrong message about what it means to be a religious Jew. They missed the chance to teach their kids about the sanctity of Jewish law and custom, and they failed to impart a lesson about religious sacrifice. Instead, the parents conveyed the message that religion entitles its adherents to special favors. Apparently, all it takes is a good lawyer.