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In what's being hailed as a victory for the First Amendment, the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) has updated its rules to accommodate religious requests following controversy over a group of students being compelled to choose between the tenets of their faith and a state basketball tournament.

Earlier this year, Oakwood Adventist Academy boys' basketball team was forced to forfeit a 1A high school playoff game because of the team's religious observance of the Sabbath, which began at sunset the day of the game. The team tried petitioning AHSAA to move the game to a different time, but the organization was unwilling to adjust.

In May, Oakwood filed a federal lawsuit against AHSAA, citing First Amendment violations. The suit came through Becket, a law firm focusing on religious liberty.

On Tuesday, the AHSAA voted to amend its rulebook to allow for accommodations for similar situations in the future.

Specifically, the rule change would allow adjustments in game schedules to accommodate religious requests.

"This new rule is a win for both the Mustangs and the First Amendment," said Joseph Davis, counsel at Becket. "We hope that other state athletic associations will follow AHSAA's lead so that no school or student will ever be excluded from participating on account of their faith."

Governor Kay Ivey, who hosted the Oakwood team at the Capitol after they were forced to forfeit, came out to support the team and their victory.

"Today's vote by the Alabama High School Athletic Association is absolutely a win for religious liberty, and no doubt, is a testament to the Oakwood boys and their convictions," Ivey said. "I hope that Alabamians – young and old – can look to these boys as an example. They stood strong in their faith and showed that good can come from a difficult situation. Here in Alabama, we will always stand up for religious freedom, and this rule change is certainly doing just that." 

The team also received support from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

"We applaud AHSAA for doing the right thing," said Todd McFarland, associate general counsel for the General Conference for Seventh-day Adventists. "The new rule allows the Oakwood Mustangs to give their all both in their faith and in their sport."

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email craig.monger@1819news.com.

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