ATLANTA – The dozens of mock murder trials by high school students in Atlanta's main courthouse Friday were underpinned by a real-life legal drama after an Orthodox Jewish school filed a discrimination complaint over the competition's schedule.
The Maimonides School, an Orthodox Jewish school in Brookline, Massachusetts, has long planned to compete in the National High School Mock Trial Championship in Atlanta this weekend. But the competition's finals fall on Saturday, and the students don't compete on the Sabbath.
The event's organizers rebuffed the school's attempts to tweak the schedule to accommodate the students' religious needs, so team members' parents hired an attorney to file a religious discrimination complaint to the Justice Department.
The legal fight heightened after a board member of the state Bar of Georgia resigned over the controversy and Fulton County's chief judge threatened to block the event from taking place in the downtown Atlanta courthouse unless the schedule was changed.
The mock trial's organizers begrudgingly relented Thursday, saying the decision forced organizers to choose between canceling the competition or adhering to "an unreasonable request."
For the school's leaders, the outside-the-courtroom arguments provided a compelling legal lesson for the students competing in the event.
"It was always our hope that an organization attuned to the law would be sympathetic to the constitutional rights of the students," said Rabbi Roy Rosenbaum, the Maimonides team's faculty adviser. "We weren't asking for preferential treatment."
The rabbi said school leaders tried to persuade the event's organizers to tweak the schedule after the Maimonides team won the Massachusetts state championship in March. He said filing the discrimination complaint was a last resort.
When the event's organizers didn't budge, the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit group that fights anti-Semitism, fired off a letter warning the organization's refusal could "tarnish the reputation and standing of the entire competition."
The schedule originally called for each of the 42 schools to participate in two mock trials Friday and two more on Saturday, with a championship pitting the top two teams at 5 p.m. Saturday.
But the scheduling tweak allowed the students from Maimonides to participate in one mock trial Thursday night and three more throughout a busy Friday. If the school's team reaches the championships — the finalists will be announced Saturday afternoon — the organizers have agreed to push the final competition well past sundown on Saturday evening.
It still makes for a bit of a logistical jam for the Maimonides students, who are bound by religious law from working between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. They must cram onto a van after their third trial Friday and rush to the homes of local Jewish residents before the sun sets.
But school officials say the students are adapting well.
"They're just very happy they can compete," said Dave Fredette, an assistant district attorney in Boston who doubles as the team's coach. "They've handled it better than the parents."
Besides, added Rosenbaum, some of the school's would-be attorneys are now rethinking what type of legal career they may pursue.
"Some of the kids are now seriously looking at careers in law in a different way," said the rabbi. "Now they see masters of the law can help guarantee an individual's legal rights.