Chung v. Washington Interscholastic Activities Association
Joelle and Joseph Chung are siblings, avid high school tennis players, and active members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in their hometown, Chehalis, Washington. Joelle was a top player on her high-school tennis team, but in her senior year, she was disqualified from the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s (WIAA) state postseason competition because the last day of the State Championships was scheduled for a Saturday, the Sabbath day for members of the Seventh-day Adventist faith. Throughout Joelle's high school career, the WIAA had a rule that to participate in the tournament, athletes had to certify that they would be able to participate in all levels of the competition with exceptions for injury, illness, or unforeseen events. When the Chungs asked the WIAA to make an exception for their family’s religious beliefs, the WIAA refused. With Becket’s help, in August 2019, the Chungs sued, arguing that the WIAA discriminates when it makes exceptions for secular reasons for withdrawing from competition, like injury, illness, and unforeseen events, but not for religion.
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Meet the Chungs: Star athletes, faithful to their Sabbath
Joelle and Joseph Chung are siblings, avid tennis players, and active members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in their hometown, Chehalis, Washington. As faithful Adventists, Joelle and Joseph observe the Sabbath, a biblically-ordained practice of devoting time to rest, prayer and collective worship, every week from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown. The Chung family take their faith very seriously. Joelle even missed her own high school graduation because it fell on a Saturday. Joelle and Joseph became tennis players because they knew that the sport was primarily played on the weekdays, so it would not interfere with their religious observance.
Joelle was a top athlete on her high school’s girls’ tennis team for four years before graduating in 2019. Joseph is a current high school student and is already a star player on the boys’ tennis team as a sophomore. The Chungs are talented and dedicated tennis players, but a discriminatory rule has kept them from playing the sport they love because of their beliefs.
Kept off the court for their faith
Every year the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), the organization authorized under Washington law to regulate high-school sports in Washington, holds a state-wide postseason tennis tournament. To advance to the State Championships, players must compete in two qualifying tournaments. Throughout Joelle’s high school tennis career, the WIAA required participants to certify that they would be able to participate in each level of the tournament to qualify for the championships, with exceptions for injuries, illness, and “unforeseen events.”
In her junior year, Joelle won the first qualifying tournament leading up to the State Championships but had to forfeit her spot to an alternate because the next round conflicted with the Sabbath. In 2019, her senior season, Joelle was undefeated and expected to win in the qualifying tournaments and advance to the State Championships. Yet the State Championships were scheduled on a Friday and Saturday. According to WIAA rules, she was disqualified from playing the entire postseason.
Hoping to reach a compromise, the Chung family contacted the WIAA months in advance, asking for a religious accommodation. The Chungs asked the WIAA to move the State Championships to a weekday or simply allow Joelle to participate in the qualifying tournaments and use an alternate for the championships, just like athletes with injuries or illness can. Of course, it was entirely hypothetical that a replacement would be needed, depending on whether Joelle advanced to the championships. The WIAA flatly denied their requests, forcing Joelle to give up her chances in the tournament.
Defending the right to play while keeping the faith
No student-athlete should be barred from experiencing the excitement of competition and the opportunity to advance to the top of their field because of discriminatory standards. With Becket’s help, the Chung family sued the WIAA, asking that the rule be changed so that all students, including students of faith, can fully participate. The boys’ state tennis postseason begins in October so, Becket asked the WIAA to change its discriminatory rule before then so that Joseph and other students whose faith compels them to keep the Sabbath on Saturday can participate on equal terms with other students.
On August 27, 2019 the WIAA added religious observance to the list of exceptions allowing a player to withdraw from competition without being penalized. But this rule change is only a partial victory because the WIAA continues to insist that it cannot adjust the schedule of the tournament to accommodate religious observance, even if one of the remaining contenders has a Sabbath conflict.
The Chungs moved for summary judgment in September 2020, but the court decided to send the case to trial. Because WIAA had already changed the rule excluding them from postseason play, our clients agreed to settle as long as WIAA would agree to keep in place its amended rule allowing Saturday Sabbath observers to play in the postseason up until they run into an actual Sabbath conflict. A settlement agreement was reached and approved by the court on September 3, 2021. On September 21, 2021, the court granted the parties’ motion to dismiss, formally ending the case.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Individual Freedom—In a pluralistic society, organizations have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations to ensure Americans of all faiths can participate fully in society. No American should unnecessarily be forced to choose between participating in public life and living out their sincere religious beliefs. Organizations especially cannot make secular exceptions to their rules and regulations and then claim that religious exceptions cannot be allowed.