Jewish school back in Texas tourney semifinals

By Chris Duncan

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 1 2012 6:05 p.m. MST

HOUSTON — Organizers of a Texas state basketball tournament relented Thursday and agreed to reschedule a semifinal game involving an Orthodox Jewish school after parents filed a lawsuit over the original game time, which conflicted with the Sabbath.

The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, or TAPPS, had rejected Beren Academy's requests to reschedule the game that was to be played at 9 p.m. Friday. Beren players observe the Sabbath between Friday night and Saturday night and won't play basketball during those hours.

A group of parents with boys on the team subsequently sued TAPPS and sought a temporary restraining order requiring the agency to reschedule the game.

After being notified the lawsuit had been filed, TAPPS director Edd Burleson said the association would reverse course and allow Beren (23-5) to play Dallas Covenant at 2 p.m. Friday. Should the Stars win, they'll start their championship game no earlier than 8 p.m. Saturday.

Richard Rohan, the Dallas attorney who filed the lawsuit, said the 14-page complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Dallas about 9 a.m. Within two hours, TAPPS agreed to accommodate Beren without a court order, he said.

The suit was filed against the Mansfield Independent School District because that's where the game was originally scheduled to be played, Rohan said.

Rohan's firm filed the suit after it was suggested by Washington, D.C. attorney Nathan Lewin, a well-known champion of civil rights who has frequently sued on behalf of Jews facing discrimination over the Sabbath and other issues.

Lewin said Thursday he was contacted about 10 days earlier by the father of Beren captain and point guard Isaac Mirwis and informed of a potential problem over the playoffs.

"I thought if we got to court there was no judge in the world who would uphold (TAPPS)," said Lewin, whose clients have included former President Richard Nixon, ex-Beatle John Lennon and actress Jodie Foster. "No way a remotely fair judge would say this makes any sense."

The lawsuit caught Beren officials off guard. Headmaster Harry Sinoff and coach Chris Cole only learned of the suit on Thursday morning, and both said they regretted that the situation reached the level of legal action.

"It's a mixed emotion," Cole said. "We feel like we've earned the right to play. Our focus all week has been trying to get TAPPS to reschedule the game times to accommodate us. At the same time, this was not the course of action that we wanted."

The complaint argued that the team was "being denied, solely on account of their religious observance, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete." It called the tournament "an irreplaceable opportunity" and said depriving Beren the chance to play represented "irreparable harm ... because of their Jewish religious beliefs and observances."

Burleson said earlier this week that association bylaws prevented TAPPS from moving the game time. Beren, a TAPPS member since 2011, advanced to the semifinals by beating Kerrville Our Lady of the Hills last week.

Cole made the awkward call to TAPPS on Thursday morning, stressing that the school itself did not file the legal action. Beren, with an enrollment of 247 students, immediately held an assembly in its gym, where rabbi Avi Pollak informed all the students that the game was back on.

"You could see some excitement in the hallway," Cole said. "My phone started going crazy."

The dispute generated national media attention, and Cole joked about the need to close Thursday's practice to the media, a common practice among college and professional teams. But he also displayed frustration that the ordeal dragged on for a week.

"I feel like if (the decision) could've been done on Thursday, then it could've been done on Monday," Cole said.

Mirwis, one of the named plaintiffs, said the excitement about getting to play was mixed with relief that the hectic week was almost over.

"Our focus right now is to play basketball, and we've got to keep out any off-the-court distractions that might affect how we play," he said.

Guard/forward Isaac Buchine, also named as a plaintiff, said bowing to TAPPS' initial schedule and breaking the Sabbath to play the semifinal game was never considered.

"It's something that we've grown up with, it's something that our parents have taught us from such a young age, which made it a lot easier for us," he said.

The Beren controversy comes a year after another Orthodox Jewish school, the Texas Torah Institute of Dallas, competed for the 2A championship of a different state athletic league, the Texas Christian Athletic Association. That game was moved from Saturday afternoon to Saturday night through an agreement worked out by the association and the institute's opponent, Allen Academy of Bryan.

Allen, coached by former Baylor coach Dave Bliss, won the game, which ended around 11 p.m.

Bliss said Thursday that, while his school wasn't excited about playing late into the night, moving the game to accommodate the Dallas Jewish school was the only logical option.

"I didn't even think of doing anything different," he said.

Associated Press writer Danny Robbins contributed from Dallas.

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