ACLU Files Brief To Overturn Pawtucket's Favorable Treatment Of Parochial Schools

February 3, 2011 12:00 am

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The Rhode Island ACLU has asked a federal court to rule unconstitutional, without the need for a trial, the City of Pawtucket’s long-standing practice of giving preferential treatment to parochial schools over public schools in granting permits for the use of city athletics fields. The ACLU’s motion for summary judgment follows months of discovery in the lawsuit, which was filed in October 2009 on behalf of seven Pawtucket parents and their children.

Those parents and other public school officials had complained to the City for years about this problem, all to little avail, prompting the lawsuit’s filing in 2009. For example, O’Brien Field, a public field that was refurbished with tax money in 2001 has since been reserved almost exclusively for use by Saint Raphael Academy, a Catholic school. The suit alleges that public junior high school teams have been denied the use of other fields which have often been reserved for the use of private sectarian schools.

In its filing yesterday, RI ACLU volunteer attorney Sandra Lanni also notes that until last year, the Office of Parks and Recreation had no written policies governing the issuance of permits for city owned athletic fields. Even the new policy, which the ACLU claims is still deficient, is ignored anyway, leaving parks Superintendent William Mulholland with total discretion in deciding what schools get to use the fields. At its core, the ACLU’s motion for summary judgment argues:

“Defendants admit that City officials have issued permits to sectarian and public schools on a case by case basis and that even now, after the adoption in 2010 of written policies governing the issuance of permits, they have not followed those written policies but have instead continued to issue permits as they always have. Further, the written policies adopted in 2010 codify both a consideration of historical permitting and a substantial amount of discretion in the City officials charged with the authority to issue permits. Those officials have manipulated the permitting process to insure that St. Raphael Academy, a private, sectarian school, has had almost exclusive use of O’Brien Field after school on weekdays for its football practice and that the field is locked when high school football is not in season. Additionally, St. Raphael Academy is granted an exclusive permit after school on weekdays during the fall soccer season for one of three soccer fields at the McKinnon/Alves Soccer Complex, while all seventeen (17) of the public high school and public junior high school fall soccer teams share two City fields for games and three City fields for practices.”

Citing another example, the ACLU motion states: “In 2010, a request by the public school athletic directors for the use of the McKinnon/Alves soccer field permitted to St. Raphael Academy was simply denied, despite the fact that the denial of this request has resulted in the cancelling of public school games and practices as a result of insufficient field space.”

The ACLU’s memo concludes: “There is no dispute that City of Pawtucket has and continues to empower the Superintendent of Parks and Recreation to issue permits for the use of its fields and related facilities in his complete and absolute discretion, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Further, the Superintendent has exercised his authority in such a way as to benefit private, sectarian schools operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence. By so doing, the City has failed to abide by the neutrality towards religion required by the Establishment Clause.”

At the time the suit was filed, lead plaintiff Maggi Rogers, who first complained to city officials about the problem, expressed how she had been “frustrated by six years of stonewalling by city officials,” and called it “discouraging to teach our public school students about the Bill of Rights in the classroom and then see them look out those same classroom windows to see it violated on a daily basis.”

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