Student Athletes Prevail in Religious Discrimination Case Against OSAA

On August 18, 2010, the Oregon Supreme Court ordered the Oregon School Activities Association to pay $66,230 in attorney fees. This case was on behalf of students at Portland Adventist Academy who sought a reasonable accommodation from the OSAA to compete in the state basketball tournament without having to play during the Seventh Day Adventist Sabbath (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday).

Years of litigation and considerable cost could have been avoided had the OSAA simply made the accommodation when it was first requested. No fees were awarded against the Board of Education.

The cooperating attorney is Charles F. Hinkle of Stoel Rives LLP.

July 2009 – The ACLU has moved the Board of Education for a final order requiring the Oregon School Activities Association to accommodate the Portland Adventist Academy, based on Strode et al v. OSAA, in which the Multnomah Circuit Court issued a preliminary injunction ordering the OSAA to accommodate PAA’s participation in the 2008 tournament.  OSAA has opposed the motion, arguing that Strode renders this case moot.

Oregon Supreme Court Upholds Court of Appeals Decision, Forces State Board of Education to Reconsider the Case

May 8, 2008 -- The Oregon Supreme Court today dismissed the Oregon School Activities Association’s arguments that it would face “undue hardship” in accommodating the religious beliefs of basketball players from Portland Adventist Academy.

Today’s ruling follows two previous Court of Appeals rulings that sided with the ACLU of Oregon and the Portland Adventist student athletes.

The ACLU and student athletes also prevailed against the OSAA earlier this year, when Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Henry Kantor granted a preliminary injunction, forcing the OSAA to accommodate the religious beliefs of student athletes by offering alternative scheduling during the students’ Sabbath, which is from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday. Students’ religious beliefs prohibit them from engaging in athletic activity during the Sabbath, and from the late 1990s until this year, the OSAA refused to reschedule games to accommodate that.

Today’s Supreme Court decision is not the final step in this case. The decision, written by Justice Virginia L. Linder, sends the case back to the Oregon State Board of Education for further proceedings. The State Board of Education’s decisions in this matter have twice before been overturned by the Court of Appeals.

“The road to justice has been long for these young athletes. Many have graduated high school already, moving on to college and even law school,” said David Fidanque, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oregon. “Our hope is that the OSAA will acknowledge the discriminatory nature of its policies and finally give these students the chance to compete on the same terms as other schools in their leagues.”

Charles F. Hinkle of Stoel Rives LLP has been the ACLU volunteer attorney on this case.

Previous Reports:

Basketball Teams Will Play
Judge Sides with ACLU in Long-Running Case

February 20, 2008 -- Thanks to Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Henry Kantor and the ACLU of Oregon, high school basketball teams from both Portland Adventist Academy and Rogue Valley Adventist School will be able to play in their respective state tournaments if they make it through the playoffs that begin this week.

“This is a tremendous victory for freedom of religion in Oregon,” said David Fidanque, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oregon. “It’s great news for players from both Adventist schools. All they have ever wanted was the chance to compete on the same terms as all the other schools in their leagues.”

The ACLU of Oregon has represented various basketball players from Portland Adventist Academy (PAA) since 2000 in their effort to convince the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) to make a reasonable accommodation of their religious practices which require that they not play basketball on their Sabbath, between sundown Friday evening and sundown Saturday evening. Until now, the OSAA has steadfastly refused, saying that rescheduling games even a few hours would be unreasonable because it would inconvenience other schools.

The ACLU’s challenge of several OSAA administrative rulings has been to the Oregon Court of Appeals twice, and a separate case has been awaiting a decision from the Oregon Supreme Court since it was argued in March 2007.

With another set of state basketball tournaments looming, ACLU cooperating attorneys Charles Hinkle and Jon Stride went to Multnomah County Circuit Court two weeks ago on behalf of new PAA students seeking a preliminary injunction to enforce the Oregon Court of Appeals holding that OSAA must make a reasonable accommodation for Portland Adventist players. For the first time, players from the PAA girls basketball team were included, since both the girls and boys teams are eligible for the playoffs.

Circuit Judge Henry Kantor issued an injunction in favor of the players on February 11, but the OSAA petitioned the Oregon Supreme Court urging them to overrule Judge Kantor’s order. The Oregon Supreme Court denied the petition on February 15. It still has not issued a ruling in the case that was argued last spring (Nakashima v. Oregon State Board of Education).

In the meantime, players and parents from Rogue Valley Adventist School heard about Judge Kantor’s ruling and approached the ACLU to see if they could also get assistance.  Fidanque said the ACLU was ready to file a separate lawsuit in Jackson County if necessary, but the OSAA agreed to provide the same accommodation for Rogue Valley in the Class 1A tournament as they will for PAA in the Class 3A tournament.

ACLU cooperating attorney Charles Hinkle filed an amended complaint in Multnomah County on February 19 to add two players from the Rogue Valley, and ACLU expects an amended preliminary injunction from Judge Kantor today, since the Class 1A playoffs are scheduled to begin this week.

Supreme Court Decision Pending in Religious Liberty Case

March 2007 -- The ACLU of Oregon argued the latest round of a long-standing case against the Oregon School Activities Association. At issue is whether the OSAA has done enough to accommodate a Portland Adventist Academy basketball team, in terms of balancing the state tournament schedule with players’ Seventh-day Adventist religious beliefs.

The ACLU, arguing on behalf of the Adventist players, has earned two favorable rulings in the Oregon Court of Appeals. The Oregon Supreme Court agreed to hear the latest appeal from the OSAA, and it was argued March 5 at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland.

Seventh-day Adventists observe Sabbath from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown, meaning athletes may not play or practice during that time. In 1996, PAA asked the OSAA to adjust the tournament schedule to accommodate the Sabbath, shifting a Saturday afternoon game into the early evening. The OSAA agreed, and the PAA team went on to win the state title.

The following year, the OSAA refused a similar accommodation, leading to this ongoing legal battle.

The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that the OSAA must reasonably accommodate religion when scheduling state sports tournaments unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship or burden.  The arguments before the Supreme Court focused in large part on what constitutes an “undue hardship.”

Charlie Hinkle, ACLU of Oregon cooperating attorney, argued the case before the Supreme Court. “If a reasonable accommodation can be made” such as tweaking the schedule to shift an afternoon game into the evening “then you can almost draw the conclusion that, per se, it’s unreasonable not to accommodate it,” Hinkle told the court.

The PAA boys basketball team qualified for post-season play from 2003-2006. However, the team has not been able to compete because the OSAA insisted that PAA players agree beforehand to play on their Sabbath if required by the tournament schedule.  OSAA has, however, rescheduled tournament schedules to accommodate secular interests such as media requests.

At the March 5 Supreme Court hearing, Justice Thomas Balmer told the OSAA, that it appears “you’re not making any accommodations for this religious purpose but you’re making accommodations … for all sorts of secular purposes.”

OSAA requires the team to pledge, before the tournament begins, that it will play whenever the games are scheduled.  Essentially, OSAA requires the PAA players to adjust their religious beliefs rather than even considering whether the tournament schedule can be modified to accommodate PAA. 

A March 7 Oregonian editorial took the OSAA to task for stalling on this case. The OSAA, the editorial stated, has “accomplished little except to stifle competition, exclude teenagers from the game and display a record-breaking streak of obstinance. Regardless of the Oregon Supreme Court’s ruling on this matter, the OSAA should find a way to accommodate the religious faith of Portland Adventist Academy.”

The editorial went on: “(T)he OSAA makes itself look foolish by claiming that it can’t possibly move a few games by a few hours, in this very small tournament in a small town, without losing piles of money and creating a local nightmare for itself. The OSAA shouldn’t need the courts to force it to play well with others.”

No date is set for a decision from the Oregon Supreme Court. Typically, rulings are issued months after a hearing has occurred. The ACLU of Oregon will monitor the case and offer updates, as warranted.