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Judo Suit Challenges Forced Bowing

December 8, 2001

SEATTLE (AP) _ This judo fight just keeps on going.

A U.S. District Court judge said Friday he would take several weeks to rule on whether to throw out a case brought by three local judo athletes against the sport’s U.S. governing body.

They say being forced to bow to inanimate objects before a competition is religious discrimination. They don’t mind bowing to opponents out of respect, but object to ceremonial bowing to judo mats or pictures of the founder of the Japanese martial art.

Leilani Akiyama, 14, brother James, 17, and 40-year-old Jay Drangeid, all of Bellevue, hope Judge Robert Lasnik will keep their 5-year-old case alive. If so, it would go to trial in April.

Their lawsuit claims that bowing violates the section of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting unfair denials of access to public venues, and the Washington Law Against Discrimination.

John Holm, the Akiyamas’ stepfather, is a judo instructor in Renton. Bowing in judo stems from Shinto customs, he said. The teens’ mother, Mariko, is Buddhist, and she believes bowing contradicts the religious practices she wants her children to learn, the family’s lawyer said.

Drangeid, the son of a Lutheran minister, wrestled in college at Minnesota-Duluth before taking up judo in 1979. He does not feel comfortable bowing, but wants to continue competing in judo.

``There are contestants with different religious beliefs,″ said Mark Fleming, lawyer for the plaintiffs. ``It’s not something judo should control.″

The three filed suit in early 1997 in federal court against the U.S. Judo Federation, its subsidiaries and several local instructors.

Leilani Akiyama is now a freshman at Newport High School and a varsity wrestler along with her brother, a junior. She said she was held out of several judo tournaments in one six-month period because she wouldn’t bow. A temporary court injunction allows the Akiyamas to compete without bowing pending a ruling.

``I feel like I’m being discriminated against because they won’t let me compete unless I bow,″ Leilani said. ``This lawsuit has been going on so long, I hope it ends on our side.″

Dirk Ehlert, a Seattle lawyer representing the judo groups, said it would be better for judo athletes to push the sport to change its rules rather than pursue a lawsuit.

``It’s beyond question that both at the national and international level these are the rules and these are enforced,″ Ehlert said.

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