Oakwood Adventist Academy v. Alabama High School Athletic Association

A team of believers deeply rooted in faith

Oakwood Adventist Academy is a private Seventh-day Adventist school in Huntsville, Alabama. Founded as the Oakwood Industrial School in 1896, Oakwood is the oldest Black Seventh-day Adventist school in the U.S. Like many private religious schools, its students are passionate about their faith – and about their sports teams. In 2022, the hard work that the Oakwood Academy Mustangs had put into their basketball team paid off, and the team made it to the semi-finals, with a shot at the state title on the horizon. It was the best basketball season in the history of the school.  

But a problem emerged when the Mustangs learned of the schedule for the semi-finals: the Mustangs were slated to play at 4:30 on a Saturday, an hour before the end of the Sabbath. Seventh-day Adventists consider the Sabbath – from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday – holy. That means no working, and no playing competitive sports, and it is an obligation that Oakwood students and staff alike take very seriously.  

A simple solution 

Fortunately for the Mustangs, there seemed to be a simple solution to the problem. Another game was slated for 7:30 on the same day, well after sundown and the end of the Sabbath. Oakwood Academy reached out to the other teams, who all agreed to the switch. However, the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA), which is the state body charged with overseeing interscholastic sports in Alabama, denied Oakwood Academy’s request.  

Oakwood Academy asked AHSAA to adopt sensible religious accommodations to their scheduling policy. The First Amendment requires workable accommodations that allow teams like the Mustangs to participate on an equal basis in competitive sports, and the NCAA already accommodates Sabbath-observing schools like Oakwood Academy in national tournaments. These accommodations help ensure that unpopular or minority religious groups (such as Orthodox Jews or Seventh-day Adventists) are not excluded from the playing field or pressured to abandon their beliefs for a shot at the big game.

No American should ever be excluded from participating in sports on account of his or her faith. A simple schedule-shuffling accommodation is the least government bureaucrats can do to ensure that Americans are able to fully live out their faith, both on and off the court.  

On September 27, 2022, the Alabama High School Athletic Association adopted a new rule that will adjust game schedules to accommodate religious requests, ending the case and providing lasting protection for religious schools and their athletes.  

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public Square — America has always freely permitted all, whatever their religious persuasion, equal access to public spaces. Sports – especially when it is overseen by government bodies – is no exception. Making sure all Americans have an equal chance to bat a home-run, score a touchdown, or kick a goal helps keep America strong and united, but it also makes sure that the very best athletes have the chance to compete against each other at the top of their game. 

Dunn v. Smith

Leveling down to avoid religious accommodations

Until recently, Alabama required that a clergy member be present at the execution of a prisoner. But in 2019, the Alabama Department of Corrections abruptly changed its policy to instead ban all clergy members from the execution chamber in response to a Supreme Court ruling in a Texas prisoner’s case, Murphy v. Collier.

In the Texas case, Patrick Murphy was awaiting death by lethal injection, and his final request was for his Buddhist minister to pray with him at his execution. The state of Texas denied his request, arguing that his Buddhist minister was a security risk, even though the state allowed Christian ministers and Muslim imams into the chamber and the minister was a frequent chaplain to Texas prisoners. On March 28, 2019—two and a half hours after Murphy was scheduled to die—the Supreme Court stepped in and said that Texas could not go forward with the execution unless it granted Murphy access to his Buddhist spiritual advisor.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, Texas and Alabama made an ugly move to avoid accommodating minority religions. Both states changed their policies to ban all clergy members from the execution chamber.

Defending the comfort of clergy in the death chamber

Fast forward to 2021. Alabama prisoner, Willie B. Smith was scheduled to be executed for his crimes on February 11, 2021. Smith’s minister, Pastor Robert Paul Wiley, Jr., attested that during his time in prison, Smith repented of his sins and developed a strong personal faith. Pastor Wiley has spent years ministering to Smith in prison. Smith asked that Pastor Wiley be allowed to accompany him in the execution chamber but, in accordance with Alabama’s new discriminatory policy, his request was denied.

Smith sued the state of Alabama for his right to be accompanied by his pastor at the moment of death. The district court ruled against Smith, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled in his favor. Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court on February 11, 2021, the morning of Smith’s scheduled execution.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Smith, arguing that 13 out of 20 prisoners executed in the United States over the past year were allowed to have a clergy member of their choice present in the execution chamber. If the federal government and other states have been able to offer this religious accommodation, so too should Alabama. The brief also argued that the Constitution requires more than equal, bad treatment for all faiths. It requires that all Americans, including prisoners, be accommodated in their religious exercise whenever possible.

Late on the night of February 11, 2021 the Supreme Court declined to disturb the court of appeals ruling that Alabama must allow Smith to be accompanied by his pastor in the execution chamber. Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Barrett, agreed with the Court’s decision, writing that “past practice, in Alabama and elsewhere, shows that a prison may ensure security without barring all clergy members from the execution chamber.”

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual Freedom: Religion is an innate human desire, and all individuals regardless of their legal status deserve protection of their constitutional right to practice and adhere to their faith.
  • RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons.

Eternal Word Television Network v. Azar

An unconstitutional mandate threatened nun-founded Catholic television network

Thirty years ago, a cloistered nun named Mother Angelica started a small television network in her monastery garage to spread the teachings of the Catholic church. Today, the network she started, Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), continues her mission. But in 2011, EWTN’s ability to remain to its Catholic faith was threatened by the federal government.

In August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a federal mandate that required employers to provide services like the week-after pill in their health insurance plans, free of cost. Because the government refused to grant religious exemptions to religious non-profits like EWTN, the mandate would force the nun’s network to authorize and take part in providing contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion drugs to EWTN’s employees—fundamentally violating EWTN’s Catholic beliefs and mission. If EWTN did not comply with the mandate, it would face millions of dollars in fines from the IRS.

To continue its religious mission, EWTN spent seven years in court

EWTN refused to be part of the government’s plan to provide contraceptive services and drugs that destroy human life. In February 2012, Becket stepped in to represent EWTN in federal court.

What followed was nearly seven years of constant litigation. In June 2014, an Alabama district court ruled against EWTN days before the non-profit was due to face millions of dollars in IRS fines. Becket filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which granted EWTN emergency protection from the fines while its case was still ongoing. Then, in February 2015, the Eleventh Circuit ruled against EWTN—but it gave them shelter from the mandate until the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the landmark case, Zubik v. Burwell. The Supreme Court’s decision in that case granted a victory to religious non-profits by directing the government to find another way to achieve its goals without violating religious liberty. Because of that ruling, the Eleventh Circuit threw out its previous ruling against EWTN and instead ordered EWTN and the government to address possible alternatives to the mandate.

A hard-won victory, at last

On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with a broader religious exemption, and on November 7, 2018, HHS issued a rule finalizing the exemption. On November 29, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit finally granted EWTN a hard-won victory when it ruled to end EWTN’s seven-year legal battle.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that the government cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs.
  • Religious communities: Religious communities have the right to build and lead their ministries according to their beliefs free from governmental discrimination.
  • Individual freedom: Religious individuals and organizations are free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, including in the workplace.

Tommy DeForest, Alabama

Tommy DeForest was a Sikh high school student in Alabama who wanted to wear a patka, the headcovering required by the Sikh faith. Good Hope High School barred him from attending school with his patka, citing its “no hats” policy. Becket sent a letter to the superintendent and argued that forcing a student to chose between his religious convictions and receiving a public education violates the right to free exercise of religion. We pointed to the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment to Alabama’s constitution, which says that the “[g]overnment shall not burden a person’s freedom of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” While the reasoning behind a no hats policy in public schools may be fine, it should not restrict the religious freedom of students, be they Jewish, Sikh, or something else. The school backed down, and Tommy was able to return to school and continue practicing his faith.

Smith v. Allen

Becket is committed to defending the rights of all religious faiths, even those unknown to most Americans. When an Alabama prison inmate requested to keep an Odinist meditation crystal while in prison, officials denied his request on multiple occasions; Becket intervened on his behalf after the District Court upheld the prison’s decision.

Though the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals elected not to provide the specific prisoner with his meditation crystal (due to some limiting factors unique to the case), it did affirm the general rights of prisoners to religious accommodations under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Further, it afforded religious inmates the opportunity to assert this right when a lack of accommodation can be demonstrated to have caused a substantial burden to the inmate. Thus, independent of the specific issue at stake in the case, the religious rights of prisoners were broadly upheld.

This decision laid the groundwork for future religious liberty cases dealing with the freedoms of prisoners, and ensured that individuals who face legitimate burdens on their exercise of faith may seek relief through the judicial system.

Temple B’nai Sholom v. City of Huntsville

Temple B’nai Sholom is a Reform Jewish synagogue with a long history in Huntsville, Alabama. Founded in 1876, it has occupied its present location since 1899. The Temple sanctuary has been designated a Historic Building, and was extensively renovated in the mid-1990s.

In the 1970s, the Temple purchased two adjacent pieces of property in order to have room for future expansion. Each parcel contained a house, neither of which were of historic significance, although the entire area lies within an historic preservation district. One of the houses was demolished many years ago without any objection from the city or the Historic Preservation Commission, and other property owners in the area, including several nearby churches, have been allowed to demolish similar buildings.

On September 15, 2000, city code enforcement officials issued a notice declaring the house at 406 Clinton Avenue unsafe, and ordering the Temple to either “repair or demolish” the structure. Since the Temple intends to use the site for religious activities, including eventual expansion of the sanctuary, it sought permission of the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission to demolish the house.

On November 20, 2000, the Commission refused, leaving the Temple in an impossible “Catch 22” situation: ordered by one city agency to demolish the house, and prohibited by another from doing so. To add insult to injury, the city then sought a criminal misdemeanor conviction against the Temple for its failure to obey the order to “repair or demolish.”

Finally, on May 8, 2001, Temple B’nai Sholom filed suit in Madison County Circuit Court against the City of Huntsville, the head of the city’s Inspection Department, and the administrator of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. On June 1, 2001, defendants moved to remove the case from county court and move it instead to U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

In October 2001, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty joined the case, and an amended complaint was filed on October 23, 2001. It charged the city with violations of the Constitutions of Alabama and the United States and RLUIPA. On November 2, 2001, the city moved to strike the amended complaint and renewed their motion to dismiss. On November 6, Judge Smith summarily denied both motions. In February, 2002, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor filed a motion for leave to join the suit on the Temple’s side, to defend the state’s Religious Freedom Amendment. (Temple B’nai Sholom v. City of Huntsville, et al., CV-01-S-1412-NE)

Interestingly, the City of Huntsville itself had burned down a number of houses of approximately the same vintage as the house at 406 Clinton Avenue at about the same time it took action against Temple B’nai Sholom. City Community Development Director Jerry Galloway was quoted in an article in the Huntsville Times as saying, “We have an obligation to the public to get rid of stuff that’s a danger to the public health and safety, and this property was.”

Although the city initially adopted a strategy of challenging the constitutionality of RLUIPA and sought the assistance of the statute’s most vehement critic, law professor Marci Hamilton, in the end it agreed to settle the case “in order to avoid the expense, inconvenience, and uncertainty of litigation.” (Along the way, both the City of Huntsville and the Alabama Preservation Alliance joined in an amicus brief challenging RLUIPA’s constitutionality, written by Hamilton and submitted to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in C.L.U.B. v. City of Chicago.)

The settlement, approved by the Huntsville City Council on June 26, 2003, provides that the City of Huntsville will purchase the house at 406 Clinton Avenue for $25,000 and will pay to have the house moved to a vacant lot that the city owns at the corner of Dallas and Walker Streets. The settlement agreement also commits the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to “work with the Temple in good faith toward the issuance of a Certificate of Appropriateness approving the Plans [for the Temple’s expansion] and the project implementing the Plans within a reasonable and customary time period.”

Having given the Temple everything it sought in the lawsuit, the city nevertheless inserted language at the end of the agreement stating that it still refuses to concede that either RLUIPA or the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment are “valid laws.”