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Seventh-Day Adventist family sues state over tennis tournament on sabbath day

Two high school tennis stars who are members of the Seventh-Day Adventist faith feel that the state of Washington is discriminating against them in its scheduling of high school tennis tournaments — so they’ve taken the battle past the tennis court and into a court of law.

Two of the greatest passions in life for Joelle Chung, 17 and her brother Joseph Chung, 15, both of Chehalis, are their Christian faith and the sport of tennis — but faith will always come first.

When Joelle went undefeated her senior year tennis season at William F. West High School, she expected to climb the ranks through the postseason. However, the state championships were scheduled for a Saturday.

A Seventh-Day Adventist observes Saturday, not Sunday, as the sabbath day, and believes that no work should be done on the sabbath. Paul Chung, the father of Joelle and Joseph, explained to KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson that in this context, competitive sporting events are included.

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“Our understanding of how to keep the sabbath holy is to rest and refrain from work,” Paul said. “Competitive sports seems more like work than resting.”

Because Joelle knew she would be unable to play in the finals if she advanced that far, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association barred her from taking part in any postseason play, as per policy.

“Last year, the sub-districts and districts (the levels before state) were both on weekdays, but [Joelle and Joseph] weren’t even allowed to play in that, because we knew ahead of time that if they made it to the last day of the state final, they would just drop out,” Paul explained.

Stopped from serving tennis balls on the court, Joelle instead served the state with a lawsuit. The Chungs want tournaments rescheduled to accommodate Seventh-Day Adventist students in the future.

In banning the athletes from any postseason play based on a possibility, the WIAA “was going out of its way to penalize religious conduct,” according to Joe Davis of nationally renowned religious freedom firm Becket Law, the family’s legal representation.

“One of the most important aspects of the First Amendment, of religious freedom in this country, is that the government is supposed to do what it can to accommodate religion … the WIAA was really doing the opposite,” Davis said.

He pointed out that the National Collegiate Athletic Association often reschedules tournaments, such as in the case of Brigham Young student athletes who belong to the Mormon faith.

“There’s often major money at stake, very high-stakes sorts of tournaments, and they routinely accommodate religious exercise,” he said. “In fact, they have a rule that says that they will reschedule a tournament if a team makes it that has a policy against playing on a certain day for religious reasons.”

The Chungs have already won one victory — the WIAA has now added religious observance as an exception for athletes who may have to miss the final tournament. This means that students who have to miss the state championship due to religious reasons will still be allowed to take part in the preceding postseason games.

The Chung family still hope that the state finals will be changed.

“We’re not asking for some sort of across-the-board rule, that all the tournaments have to be played on this day or that day,” Davis said. “We’re asking for them to do what they do every year, which is look at the schedule, look at the availability of the venues, and make the scheduling decisions, and take into account religious objections.”

Paul himself had the same problem when he excelled at tennis in high school decades ago. He is proud of his children for choosing their faith over their hobby.

“We’ve raised our children to be committed to God, and if they chose to play, I would strongly recommend against it, but I wouldn’t force them, because God wouldn’t force anyone to do anything,” Paul said.

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from 12-3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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