Beren Academy is a modest sized school in southwest Houston, one that values both academics and athletics. This year their boys basketball team has experienced a successful run through the state basketball playoffs of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS). They dominated their quarterfinal opponent, Kerrville Our Lady of the Hills, 69-42, advancing to the state semifinals this Friday evening in Mansfield. It is a game they will never play. You see, Beren Academy is an Orthodox Jewish school, and the game is scheduled for the Sabbath.
Coach Chris Cole readily admits that school administrators knew that this was a possible outcome for the team. Beren is only in its second year in TAPPS after competing as an independent in sports. Led by a slippery point guard and a skilled post player with a deft outside touch, the Stars were clearly the best team in their district, and they have been untested so far in the playoffs. Despite the fact that the semifinal and final games of the state championship have long been scheduled during the 24-hour period in which the Stars are unable to play, a past exception made for a Seventh-Day Adventist school in the state soccer tournament gave Coach Cole and his team hope that accommodations could be made.
This story has been picked up by the major newspapers and ESPN, so it is not my intention to belabor the issues involved. This story is somewhat personal because my son plays basketball in the same district as Beren, and the Stars were the only team in the district to defeat his school twice. The district is made up of four Christian schools and Beren. All of the district schools readily adjusted their schedules so that games against Beren could be played on Thursday night instead of Friday night. Coach Cole has been outspoken in his appreciation of the schools’ flexibility, as well of that of their quarterfinal opponent.
There are big problems in the world, and this does not qualify as a big problem. But there is a principle at stake. From Beren’s perspective it is a principle of honoring the Sabbath. But from most people’s perspective, it is an issue of justice. Perhaps Beren should bear some additional cost if arrangements have to be made that inconvenience other schools. But it does not seem like that cost should include not competing for a state championship.
TAPPS was in the news a year ago for its decision to oust Allen Academy, a Bryan private school, because of questions regarding allegedly improper tuition breaks to recruit players. Rather than accept probation from TAPPS, Allen joined an alternative private school association, the Texas Christian Athletic League, and has won the last two TCAL state boys basketball titles. But the decision made by TAPPS in that case was arguably a defense of the integrity of the association, one intended to insure fairness in competition.
This situation is different. The only thing TAPPS is really protecting is convenience, and perhaps the pocketbooks of TAPPS members. It is not impossible to imagine a scenario by which TAPPS could find an alternative location for an early afternoon basketball game Friday Then, if Beren makes the finals, the game could be played Saturday night at 8 p.m., immediately following the last game of the day on the current schedule.
Is there a religious freedom issue here? Probably? Is there a religious accommodation issue? Certainly. But this is not about legalities; this is an opportunity for TAPPS to demonstrate something that you would think would come readily to an association that is primarily made up of schools that are explicitly identified with Jesus Christ—grace.
TAPPS cannot win this dispute in the court of public opinion, but that is not why they ought to let those Beren boys play. They ought to do it on priniciple. They ought to do it as a demonstration of respect for the convictions by which Beren unapologetically operates.
But, most of all, they ought to do it because it is the right thing to do.