In the spring, a team from the Torah Academy of Bergen County, an Orthodox high school in Teaneck, made it to the top tier of the national competition. But before they could go to the last round (which they didn’t win) they had to convince the National High School Mock Trial Association to allow them to compete on a day other than Friday or Saturday, on which the final bout might have had to be played.
Forced to move the date by public pressure, this year the organization said that it would not accommodate students who observe their sabbaths on Saturdays. This ad hoc ban also affects Muslims who observe on Fridays, Seventh Day Adventists, and others.
Bob Decheine, chief of staff for Rothman, says that the vote to prevent schedule changes was a close one, 8-6, and that sentiment is swinging back to where it should have been in the first place.
Decheine recounted a telephone call from a trial coach from Washington state. "I learned that the school the yeshiva students debated last year was a right-wing conservative Christian school in Mississippi, and that the teachers and students were very glad to have met the students from Bergen County, and would gladly meet them again. Decheine said that his caller, whose name he did not give, told him "that both teams learned about diversity and about what they had in common. If they were up to doing it again, they would."
The bill is now circulating on the House floor, seeking co-sponsors. Rothman and Ramstad have already gotten 10 co-signers. Says Decheine, "So far, we’re happy with it, and we will continue after the return from the congressional recess to pick up additional bipartisan signatures.
"This is a two-track effort. One is gathering co-sponsors and getting the House leaders to get it on the floor and passed. The next track is to use it to publicize the issue. These resolutions are tools that Congress uses to express its feelings on issues and situations. This one resolution makes it clear that people from every persuasion, all over the country, red and blue, are allowed to participate equally in national events, regardless of their religious beliefs."
The State Bar Foundation, sponsor of the contest in New Jersey, has pulled out of the competition. The North Carolina Trial Lawyers Association, where the contested finals were held in the spring, is seriously considering doing the same, according to Decheine.
Rothman says his fondest hope "is that the National Mock Trial Board reverses its position on this issue and becomes all-inclusive. The National High School Mock Trial Championship has been, until recently, a prestigious event that requires a tremendous amount of preparation, skill, and dedication on behalf of those students who are competing, and is looked upon with distinction by institutions of higher learning.
"However," he added, "the competition’s schedule negatively affects an increasing number of students from various religious backgrounds. This is unacceptable and violates the civil rights of these dedicated students who shouldn’t have to choose between their faith and participating in this competition. I am hopeful that the bill will convince the board to fully open the doors of this competition to students of all religious faiths."
Rabbi Yossi Adler, Torah Academy’s principal, said, "We are delighted that the congressman has taken such a personal interest in our mock trial team; he was incredibly supportive during the negotiations with the national association last year, and we hope he will prevail so that any Muslim, Jewish, or Christian schools can participate on the national level."