High school tennis players sue over championship conflict with Sabbath

Siblings Joelle and Joseph Chung have gone to court to challenge a rule that does not provide religious accommodations allowing them to play in state championships while also keeping their Sabbath. Photo courtesy of Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Aug. 14 (UPI) — A sister and brother who are star high school tennis players have filed a lawsuit challenging a rule that does not provide accommodations for them to play in Washington state championships while observing their Sabbath.

The rule prevented Joelle Chung, a devout Seventh-day Adventist who was undefeated in the 2018-19 season, from participating in any postseason games this year. Her brother, Joseph Chung, who starts his sophomore year this fall, could end up in the same situation.

The siblings and their parents observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The last day of the tennis championship fell on a Saturday this year. Because Joelle, 17, would not have been able to play that day if she advanced that far, she was disqualified from the entire postseason under a Washington Interscholastic Activities Association rule.

The siblings’ parents, Paul and Iris Chung, sued WIAA on behalf of their children, alleging the rule is unconstitutional because it discriminates on the basis of religion. The lawsuit notes that all participants have to certify they will be able to participate in each level of the tournament to qualify for the championships, but exceptions are made for secular reasons, including injuries, illness and “unforeseen events.”

The suit, filed Aug. 6 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Wash., seeks a change in the rules to allow religious accommodations. An accompanying motion asks that WIAA either be prohibited from holding matches in the 2019-20 2A Boys State Tennis tournament between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday or barred from enforcing the rule against Joseph, 15, so he won’t have to withdraw from postseason competition.

If the request is granted, Joseph would be able to compete while the case is pending in court.

“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,” Joelle, who graduated this year from William F. West High School, in Chehalis, Wash., said in a statement. “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.”

WIAA Executive Director Mick Hoffman said the association does not comment on pending litigation.

Sports and faith

The Chungs chose tennis over other sports because the matches typically are not held on their Sabbath, according to the lawsuit.

In her junior year, Joelle won the first qualifying tournament that led up to the state championships but forfeited her spot to an alternate because the next round was scheduled on the Sabbath, the suit says. The next year, when the situation recurred, WIAA refused a request from the Chung family to move the 2019 state championship to a weekday or to allow Joelle to participate and use an alternate for the championships if necessary.

Joe Davis, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization that is representing the Chungs, said the WIAA holds 120 tournaments in all kinds of sports and activities and “not a single one of them has Sunday play.”

Christians who observe the Sabbath on Sunday do not have to make a choice between their faith and participation in a competition, he said.

“The result is discrimination against religious minorities,” Davis said, adding that situations similar to that of the Chungs come up with “some frequency.”

A recent one also involved the WIAA. After Jewish and Seventh-day Adventist students sued the organization in 2015 for scheduling girls’ volleyball championship play on Saturdays, WIAA settled the case and rescheduled games to avoid conflicts.

In that case, WIAA said weekday play would harm ticket sales. The motion, though, says accommodating religious liberty sometimes requires the government to spend additional funds and besides, a ticket is not needed to attend a tennis match.

Accommodating student athletes

In some situations, procedures are in place to accommodate players when there is a religious conflict.

Brigham Young University — a Provo, Utah, school owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — has a policy prohibiting Sunday activities. However, the men’s golf team still participated in the NCAA Championships held in May on three consecutive days beginning on a Friday.

Instead of playing the third round on Sunday with the other teams, the BYU golfers hit the links alone on Thursday at the tournament in Fayetteville, Ark. The scores from that day counted as their Sunday scores.

The arrangement was made under an NCAA bylaw that says institutions with a written policy against competition on a particular day for religious reasons can be excused from competing and the championship schedule will be adjusted to accommodate them. The rule also covers players in individual championships if they attend a school with a written conflict policy.

Duff Tittle, BYU associate sports director, said all schools file a report with the NCAA each year listing their conflict days. The men’s golf team also had a conflict last year in the championship and was accommodated.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported that those accommodations sparked a debate about whether BYU gets an advantage by starting early.

It did not. Last year, Thursday’s weather was bad and Sunday’s was almost ideal, while it was windy on Thursday this year. The BYU team finished close to last in 2018 and last in 2019.


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