Nathan Lewin writes eloquently in his front-page essay in this week’s Jewish Press about the successful effort to secure the right of religious Jewish students to compete in a basketball tournament despite having been being scheduled to play on Friday evening.
As it turned out, the refusal of the students to violate the Sabbath was just the beginning of the episode. But we can be justly proud of all the media coverage revolving around a group of Orthodox Jewish students at Houston’s Beren Academy who had decided not to participate in a prestigious basketball competition if it conflicted with the requirements of their faith.
The tournament sponsors, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, refused to accommodate a request for rescheduling. This is what TAPPS director Edd Burleson said:
When Beren’s [sic] joined years ago, we advise them that the Sabbath would present them with a problem with the finals. In the past TAPPS has held firmly to their rules because of schedules are changed for the schools, it’s hard for other schools…. If we solve one problem we create another problem…. If the schools are just going to arrange their own schedule, why do we even set a tournament? Over a period of time, our state tournament, which is a highlight of our association, deteriorates to nothing. That’s the whole point of having an organization.
Of course, Mr. Burleson was trying to paper over the fact that the schools Beren Academy was going to compete against had agreed to change the time of the games in order to meet the religious needs of the Beren players.
But the valor of the students is not the only part of the Kiddush Hashem here. The accommodation of the students’ religious needs was secured through the intervention of Mr. Lewin, an internationally acclaimed attorney and well-known Orthodox Jew who since the late 1960s has, in a pro bono capacity, pioneered the notion that the reasonable accommodation of religious needs in the context of standard societal practices is an aspect of the American value of the right to the free exercise of religion. He has done this in various venues, including the United States Supreme Court.
It is also noteworthy that officials of the Beren Academy and other members of the Houston Jewish community were reluctant to commence legal action. As Mr. Lewin’s daughter and law partner Alyza Lewin, said “There was resistance to our bringing the lawsuit. We’re sorry that there are members of the Jewish community who are reluctant to challenge bias and prejudice. But this case shows that sometimes legal action is necessary to get a result.”
We agree. We believe that responsible resort to the American legal system is the right way to go for the Jewish community in protecting the rights of its members who, after all, constitute a religious minority.