Even as they face calls for reform, TAPPS board members also face a fundamental question in the Beren Academy controversy: whether to discipline Beren for a rules violation or to let the matter slide, the group’s executive director said Monday.
Edd Burleson, executive director of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, said the TAPPS board could meet next month to consider action against Beren over its failure to withdraw from the state basketball tournament. The Orthodox Jewish day school’s participation in the tournament led to a scheduling crisis and calls for TAPPS reforms.
Burleson said he is dealing with those issues while also acknowledging accusations that he and TAPPS discriminate based on matters of faith and religious practice.
“We’re not faring well in the court of public opinion,” Burleson said. “Absolutely not. No one likes to be perceived as being an anti-Semite or prejudiced or bigoted – all the words that have been cast my way. … And I do not believe I am any of those things.”
State Sen. Rodney Ellis and an attorney who represented Beren Academy in the school’s basketball scheduling controversy suggested Tuesday that state oversight of TAPPS might be a solution if the organization doesn’t institute what they consider to be adequate reforms.
Ellis, D-Houston, who was critical of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools for initially refusing last month to move a basketball game involving the Orthodox Jewish day school to a time when it would not conflict with the Jewish Sabbath, said “there are always options in Austin” to deal with TAPPS reforms.
“I am talking with other members and exploring options because what we’ve discovered in the last month is unacceptable,” Ellis said. “The organization isn’t helping itself or fulfilling its mission for the kids when it is stepping on land mines and creating controversies that shouldn’t exist.
“My hope is that TAPPS recognizes where Texas is already – and that is an extremely multicultural and diverse state – and that they do more to be inclusive to all beliefs.”
As a reminder, Sen. Ellis was joined by State Sen. Dan Patrick in urging TAPPS to accommodate Beren. Whatever legislation he may have in mind could easily wind up passing the Senate unanimously.
Legal experts say that TAPPS’ status as a private organization does not mean it has full discretion when it comes to membership and to organizational rules and guidelines.
“This is an unsettled area of law where courts could go either way,” said Dru Stevenson, a South Texas College of Law professor with expertise in nonprofit groups and federal law. “The Constitution gives freedom of religion and freedom of association. On the other hand, there is a strong principle in it of equal protection. If the group performs a function that provides public accommodation, it is less able to discriminate.”
Peter Linzer, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Houston Law Center, said that while the state probably could exert oversight of TAPPS, “The question is whether it should.”
Linzer said schools such as Beren that want special accommodations for their religious practices probably have no constitutional right to demand them.
“It comes down to whether the school has a right to be treated differently, or is it a matter of grace to be treated differently by the league or by the other schools?” Linzer said. “I think it comes down to a question of grace. You don’t have a right not to have to play basketball on Friday or Saturday.”
True enough, but the thing is that TAPPS had previously accommodated – however grudgingly a Seventh Day Adventist school on the matter of Sabbath game days. If you make one exception, it’s hard to argue you can’t make another. Plus, as Sen. Ellis has noted before, TAPPS uses public facilities for its sporting events, so the state does have an interest in enforcing non-discrimination laws. It’s certainly possible that if TAPPS chooses to continue down the path it’s now on that it could ultimately win the legal battle. I suspect the price of such a victory, in terms of public relations and its own membership, could be quite high. Their choice, I suppose.
Finally, I want to note that as I googled around for information on this, I came across this blow-by-blow account of how Beren got TAPPS to back down in that fight. It’s worth your time to read it. And, because it’s always a good idea to read what he has to say, read The Slacktivist as well.