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Valley Torah Question Reaches Another Level : Basketball: Southern Section seeks clarification on wearing of yarmulkes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an effort to end controversy and confusion surrounding the yarmulkes worn by an Orthodox Jewish high school basketball team, Dean Crowley, commissioner of the Southern Section, said he will ask for rules clarifications at state and national levels.

Crowley said rules pertaining to religious headwear need to be more fully detailed to prevent a repeat of several recent incidents in which members of the Valley Torah basketball team were harassed by officials for wearing yarmulkes during games.

Problems arose even though the school showed officials a letter signed by Crowley granting its players permission to wear the cloth skullcaps.

“This should have never happened,” Crowley said.

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Crowley’s action was prompted by a Times story Sunday in which Valley Torah players and staff told of the frustration and embarrassment they have endured in order to practice their faith. Orthodox Jewish males are required to always wear yarmulkes, symbolizing a constant recognition of God.

The story has vaulted the tiny school in North Hollywood into the media spotlight. Valley Torah Coach Matt Meisels said two television stations sent crews to the Patriots’ game Tuesday night at Southeast Lutheran in South Gate. Radio stations also have picked up on the team’s troubles, which some say were acts of anti-semitism. The San Fernando Valley office of the Anti-Defamation League has rallied to the school’s defense.

“The reaction has been fantastic,” said Carlos Ramos, secular principal and athletic director at Valley Torah. “We’ve gotten calls from so many people in the community backing us. They’re all saying the same thing, ‘What is the big deal about playing (basketball) with yarmulkes?”

On two occasions this season, Valley Torah was ordered by officials to remove their yarmulkes or risk forfeiting the game. Meisels complied the first time, in a game at Calvary Baptist in La Verne, but refused the second time, in a Dec. 19 game at Whitney High in Cerritos. After a 40-minute delay, referee Dale Earnshaw reluctantly proceeded with that game.

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Two days later, at Manoogian High in Canoga Park, officials made Valley Torah players affix their yarmulkes with tape rather than the metal clips that are normally used. Officials reportedly were motivated by safety concerns in all the aforementioned incidents.

Crowley said the officials overstepped their authority by disregarding his letter permitting Valley Torah to wear yarmulkes. An official based in the San Fernando Valley said it is generally understood that a letter from Crowley takes precedence and removes the working officials from liability.

“I’m a little disappointed that the officials did not take our letter at face value,” Crowley said.

Buck Taylor, instructional chairman of the Long Beach officials’ unit, said officials working the Valley Torah-Whitney game were concerned with liability and delayed the start of the contest to determine what constitutes legal headwear.

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"(Crowley’s) letter relieves us of that liability, but at that time we didn’t know it,” Taylor said. “The officials didn’t know it and I didn’t know it either.

“The two officials really had no idea how to handle the situation. (But) they didn’t feel they had the authority to prevent the game from being played.”

Crowley said he plans to write to Bill White, state basketball rules interpreter and former principal at Canyon High, and to Dick Schindler, chairman of the National Federation Rules committee, seeking to clarify the national rule regarding religious headwear.

“I want to make sure that (all officials) know the rule so other schools won’t have to be put through what Valley Torah went through,” Crowley said. “I want to make it clear in the rule book so officials can’t read things into it.”

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The national rule book states that religious head coverings may be worn by players, provided they are “not abrasive, hard, or dangerous to any other player” and “attached in such a way it is highly unlikely it will come off during play.”

Earnshaw, the referee who worked the Valley Torah-Whitney game, said he objected to the metal clips used to hold the yarmulkes in place because they could injure someone. Earnshaw, an official for seven years, said his actions were not prompted by religious prejudice. His partner at the game, umpire Derek Stewart, declined comment.

Meisels and Valley Torah players claim Earnshaw was belligerent and argumentative.

“The whole thing may have progressed to where both sides were upset with each other, but initially (Earnshaw) was trying to enforce what is presented in the rule book,” Taylor said. “He didn’t have too much to go on.”

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Crowley scoffed at the idea that a metal clip firmly secured to the top of the head could pose a threat to an opposing player. Moreover, Meisels said he has never seen a player injured by a clip in three seasons as Valley Torah’s coach.

“Jewish teams have been wearing those types of clips for years,” Crowley said. “All of a sudden they’re dangerous? In my opinion, what you had was an official (Earnshaw) who was over-officious and exceeding his authority.”

Roni Blau, director of the San Fernando Valley office of the Anti-Defamation League, said her organization will monitor the situation to prevent future harassment of Valley Torah’s players.

“We sent a letter to Mr. Crowley letting him know his decision to let the kids wear yarmulkes needs to be enforced,” Blau said. “All the coaches and referees need to be informed of (Crowley’s) letter, and we hope there will be consequences for those who don’t follow the guidelines.”

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In response, Crowley wrote to Blau: “We are in total agreement with your position and have taken the necessary action to work with all constituents within the Southern Section . . . to be certain there is no intolerance or discrimination against any group within the confines of our membership.”

Blau said she was pleased with Crowley’s response.

Because game officials are independent contractors, Crowley said, he has no authority to reprimand them, such as taking games away, during the regular season. However, he does have the power to request that certain officials be prevented from working the Southern Section playoffs, which are reserved for the highest-rated officials. He said Earnshaw will not officiate any postseason games.

“We’re not interested in punishing people,” Crowley said. “The bottom line is we need to get it right. Everybody is entitled to a mistake. If an official makes it again, then this office may request that he doesn’t officiate again. But we don’t say, ‘Because you made a bad call, you can never officiate again.’ I just think it was an honest mistake.”

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Meisels, the Valley Torah coach, hopes that’s all it was. He has grown weary of explaining to his players why wearing yarmulkes has suddenly become an ordeal.

“I’ve had to say some crazy things this season,” Meisels said. “I’ve had to say, ‘Look guys, this is what you will have to face in life. People see this yarmulke, and it could be detrimental in a way. You have to adjust and live up to it.’

“I shouldn’t have to say that.”


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