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Beren Academy

TAPPS changes its playoff policy

Good for them.

The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, which faced controversy last spring in a basketball tournament scheduling issue with a local Orthodox Jewish school, has amended its bylaws to ensure that its statewide high school competitions will not conflict with “the Sabbath and religious days of observance” of member schools.

The policy change, posted on the TAPPS website, is designed “to provide the opportunity for all of our member schools to participate in team sports,” the group said.

TAPPS last spring rescheduled its state boys basketball tournament when it chose not to fight legal action by parents of students attending Beren Academy, an Orthodox Jewish school in Houston whose team had qualified for the tournament but refused to play its scheduled game on Friday during the Jewish Sabbath.

[…]

TAPPS traditionally has prohibited events on Sunday to coincide with Christian days of worship, and the group also noted that it tries to comply with the National Federation of High School Associations policy that calls for weekend competition to limit students’ time away from classroom.

The amended policy avoiding statewide events on “religious days of observance,” a clear reference to schools associated with denominations that observe the Sabbath on Friday or Saturday, is designed to make competitions “accessible to all member schools and the students that they serve.”

See here for all the background. As Jerome Solomon says, now we can move on.

Before Beren

Meet Arlington Burton Adventist Academy, the school that had to deal with TAPPS’ reluctance to reschedule playoff games before Beren.

Before the Beren Academy boys basketball team captured national attention a few months ago, another school about 300 miles away lived a similar story.

But that school’s tale had a different ending.

While the Beren Stars eventually saw their season end with a loss in the state championship game, Arlington Burton Adventist Academy never got that chance in 2001.

Seventh-day Adventists, like many students at Beren, an Orthodox Jewish day school, observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, causing a conflict with state tournament scheduling.

“At 17 and 18, you want to play the game, and that’s really the thing you want to do,” said Gabriel Wade, a senior on Burton Academy’s 2001 team, which saw its season end with the forfeit of a playoff win. “But as you get older, you realize that you can set a standard and help the next guy. If that hadn’t happened to us and if Beren had been the first team that happened to, they probably wouldn’t have let them play.

“So I think it helped pave the way.”

After Burton forfeited another playoff win in 2004, the same fate nearly befell its soccer team in 2010. This time, however, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools made last-minute concessions. That precedent opened the door for Beren last month.

Burton’s experience, especially the exception that was made for them in 2010, was often mentioned during the Beren saga, but there were never many details about it that I could find. This story fills in the details, so I’m glad to find it. As was the case with Beren, the students who were affected by the decisions TAPPS made appear to have handled it with grace and maturity. We could all learn from these examples. Go read it, it’s worth your time.

Meanwhile, TAPPS members gathered together for a meeting to discuss future situations like those, among other things.

About four dozen administrators from as far away as Brownsville, Lubbock, Laredo and Houston met at a Central Texas convention center for what was described by several as a passionate but collegial meeting that they hope will help determine the future track of TAPPS, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools.

That future will include the appointment of a committee to review whether changes are needed in the TAPPS constitution and bylaws. However, there will be no immediate discussion of whether TAPPS should alter its membership guidelines or make scheduling accommodations to benefit schools where students observe days of worship other than Sunday.

Several administrators expressed support for Edd Burleson, the longtime TAPPS executive director, and said they hope TAPPS can take steps to improve its recent image in the wake of the controversy surrounding Beren Academy of Houston, where parents filed a lawsuit last month when the school’s basketball team was denied, briefly, a chance to move its playoff game scheduled during the Jewish Sabbath.

“There was no pounding of fists, no raising of voices,” said the Rev. Patrick Fulton, principal of Houston’s St. Thomas High School. “We are in this for the best interests of serving students.

“How we are going to do that is up for grabs, but we want to re-examine ourselves and make sure that we are serving students first and foremost.”

The athletic directors of both Beren and Burton were in attendance, and both of them had positive things to say about it afterward. I’m not convinced that the organization can solve its image problems while also being supportive of the main reason for those problems, but we’ll see. This meeting apparently resulted from the pushback from Catholic schools over TAPPS’ exclusionary policies, so kudos again to them for forcing the issue. I hope they can all come to a better understanding of each other.

More trouble for TAPPS

Maybe they just can’t help themselves.

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.”

If you don’t want to be thought of as a bigot, you should try to avoid talking like one. The attention TAPPS is getting for its uncharitable behavior is not going to diminish.

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.

I think we’ve found the problem at TAPPS

As is often the case, the problem starts at the top.

Edd Burleson, in full charge, didn’t bother to chew on the question. At age 77, the former small-town state champion football coach, who later served as the superintendent of a Dallas-area school district, made it clear he has neither the time nor patience for political correctness.

Rather, Burleson, who left public schools in 1989 and has served since in the leadership of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, spit out an answer he knew would raise eyebrows. When finished, he allowed a knowing nod and wry smile to punctuate his words.

“We shouldn’t have accepted them in the first place,” Burleson responded without hesitation.

“Them” is Beren Academy. And on the first full day of spring, three weeks after Beren and Burleson found themselves in the national and international spotlights, the TAPPS executive director was asked if he had any regrets about his handling of the situation.

“What else would you want me to say?” he asked. “Want me to come up with some politically correct gobbledygook? I can’t. I’m telling you that’s how I feel.”

Well, I guess that’s good for the rest of us to know. It’s certainly good for the other members of TAPPS to know.

In the wake of Burleson’s comments, the Texas Catholic Conference Education Department said the group continues to be committed to reforms that would ensure diversity among TAPPS membership.

“The comments attributed to Mr. Burleson in the media (Sunday) come as a surprise,” the group’s statement read. “At a meeting with representatives of member schools last week in Belton, Mr. Burleson reportedly conveyed his intention to listen to the concerns of member schools and resolve these issues – he even scheduled a second meeting in two weeks to discuss it further. If today’s comments are accurate, they are dramatically different from the impressions he gave a week ago.

“The Texas Catholic superintendents’ position remains the same. If the concerns are not satisfactorily resolved, Catholic schools will reconsider their future affiliation with TAPPS.”

See here for more on that. If TAPPS wants to change its name to the Texas Association of Schools With Approved Religions, they can do that. They’ll have a harder time finding public facilities to use for their sporting events if they do, but that would be their choice. Whether Edd Burleson likes it or not, we live in a diverse society. I don’t know how this is going to play out, but one way or another TAPPS is going to have to change to accommodate that. Whether they do it by recognizing reality or attempting to keep it at arm’s length remains to be seen.

Catholic schools doing the right thing

I’ve had a lot of disagreements with the Catholic Church on policy matters lately, but this is something I applaud.

The organization that represents Texas’ Catholic high schools on Thursday called for a comprehensive review of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, calling TAPPS’ treatment of Jewish and Muslim schools unacceptable.

“Failure to sufficiently improve the structure and management of TAPPS will require a re-examination of our 43 Catholic schools’ continued affiliation with TAPPS,” wrote Margaret McGettrick, education director of the Texas Catholic Conference Education Department.

Those schools represent 20 percent of TAPPS’ membership.

She urged that a review committee represent the association’s “denominational, institutional and geographic diversity, to ensure that the issues and concerns of all members are accounted for and addressed.”

The letter follows TAPPS’ refusal – until it was sued – to reschedule its state basketball playoffs to accommodate a Class 2A boys team from Beren Academy in Houston. It also cites TAPPS’ rejection of a Houston Muslim school, the Iman Academy, for membership.

The story of the Imam Academy’s effort to join TAPPS is here, and it does not make the organization look good.

Iman Academy principal Cindy Steffens said the school, which has about 500 students, wanted the chance to compete in athletics and academics against other private schools. It applied for membership in 2010 and after an interview process was rejected.

[…]

Steffens said she almost chose not to move forward with the application after receiving a questionnaire that contained what she called “loaded and provocative” questions from the association.

The Houston Chronicle obtained the email sent to the school, and the questions included, “Historically, there is nothing in the Koran that fully embraces Christianity or Judaism in the way a Christian and/or Jew understands religion. Why, then, are you interested in joining an association whose basic beliefs your religion condemns?

“It is our understanding that the Koran tells you not to mix with (and even eliminate) the infidels. Christians and Jews fall into that category. Why do you wish to join an organization whose membership is in disagreement with your beliefs?”

The questions also asked about celebrating Christmas, whether Muslims believe the Bible is corrupt and about the “spread of Islam in America.”

In 2004, at least two other Islamic schools withdrew themselves from consideration after receiving the same questionnaire.

Steffens said the apparent prejudice against Muslims was disheartening throughout the interview process.

“It’s about our children and our generation,” she said. “You know what’s really scary – if this is what we are teaching in our private schools. This is a board representing private schools in Texas. Is this how the majority of private schools think?”

Thankfully, it’s not what the Catholic schools, who probably know a little bit about being on the receiving end of such intolerance, think. You can see the letter they sent to TAPPS Executive Director Edd Burleson at Hair Balls. Burleson says TAPPS is surveying its members to better understand what direction they want to go, and that is a good first step. I hope they keep going that way. State Sen. Rodney Ellis sent a letter of his own to Burleson after the Imam Academy story ran; I’ve got it beneath the fold. As that earlier story notes, any action TAPPS takes may not be the end of this:

Jeremy Warren, spokesman for state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said the senator is discussing potential legislation that would help prevent situations like what happened with the Jewish and Islamic schools.

“It’s an interesting situation – a private entity dealing with a private institution but they use public facilities,” Warren said.

And as long as they do use public facilities, the Lege should ensure that they are following state non-discrimination laws. I hope TAPPS recognizes the need for that before any such laws get passed.

(more…)

Beren

Though they fell short at the end, the boys of Beren Academy had a remarkable and unforgettable basketball season, and I congratulate them.

They rested. They reflected. And once the sun set on the Jewish Sabbath, the Beren Academy Stars rushed to Nolan Catholic High to play the biggest basketball game of their lives.

The only thing promised the Stars was opportunity granted better late than never. Given the chance to measure themselves in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools Class 2A state championship game, the Stars came up short 46-42 against Abilene Christian on Saturday night at Hartnett Arena.

Two days after TAPPS amended the schedule to work around the Sabbath, the Stars couldn’t shake loose from a relentless Panthers defense. Senior guard Daniel Austin scored 10 points in the first nine minutes after halftime, allowing the Panthers to pull away from a 19-19 stalemate. Austin scored all 14 points of his points in the second half for the Panthers, who also got 14 from guard Ben George. All-tournament selections Zach Yoshor and Isaac Mirwis had 15 points apiece for the Stars (24-6).

Beren’s belated admission into the proceedings drew attention national attention, with a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by three players and three parents convincing TAPPS to revisit the matter. Stars senior point guard Isaac Mirwis noted after the semifinals that it would be different Sabbath than most, but that was to be expected: “It’s not a normal weekend.”

There’s an understatement. A quick review of how they got here:

The quest of Beren to get a chance to participate had drawn the attention of an array of public figures and politicians ranging from Mayor Annise Parker to former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

State Sens. Rodney Ellis and Dan Patrick had begun a bipartisan effort Thursday to pressure TAPPS into making accommodations. State Rep. Al Green was at Nolan on Friday without his trademark “God is good” lapel pin, having given it to one of Mirwis’ sisters.

“They’re representing more than Houston, Texas,” Green said. “They sort of represent the spirit of what this is all about. That is, children having the opportunity to compete and to excel. But more important, just having the opportunity to be the part of an organized effort. I’m proud that they were able to overcome one additional obstacle.

“And in doing this, it really represents the notion that you should never give up. You should always believe that if your cause is righteous and just, you will receive a just conclusion. And I think this is a just conclusion.”

Three parents and three players forced the issue with TAPPS by filing a lawsuit Thursday in district court. One of the parents was Etan Mirwis, whose son, Isaac, scored six points and dished out an assist during a 2:36 stretch of the fourth quarter after Dallas Covenant had whittled an 18-point lead to 10.

“As a parent, to know your child is given the opportunity to play to be the best, without qualification, period, words can’t explain it,” Etan Mirwis said. “It’s exhilarating.”

My first thought when I heard about this was that Beren knew going in that TAPPS was not going to make accommodations for them, and they agreed to that stipulation. The school and their students have displayed a commendable level of maturity and equanimity throughout this story, which has greatly impressed me. But in the end I was persuaded by Jerome Solomon that this whole thing was a tempest in a teapot that never should have been a problem. There were no logistical or procedural obstacles to reschedule the game – it’s not like they had to work with a TV broadcsat slot, or find a new venue, or pick an unworkable time – and there was no real principle at stake, especially since TAPPS had previously juggled a schedule to accommodate a Seventh Day Adventist school in a soccer playoff. Surely it made the most sense to do what was ultimately done and let the kids who earned the right to keep playing decide the championship on the court. I’m glad that’s how it turned out.