ACLU Lawsuit Challenging Pawtucket's Favorable Treatment of Parochial Schools Goes to Trial

December 16, 2011 12:00 am

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A trial is scheduled to begin next week in the Rhode Island ACLU’s federal lawsuit challenging 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 trial will take place before U.S. District Chief Judge Mary Lisi at 10 AM on Monday.

The trial 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 unsuccessfully complained to the City for years about this problem. 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 also been reserved for the use of private sectarian schools.

Until last year, the city’s Office of Parks and Recreation had no written policies governing the issuance of permits for city-owned athletic fields. Even with adoption of a policy, which the ACLU claims is still deficient, parks officials have been left with unbridled discretion in deciding what schools get to use the fields.

A legal memorandum filed today by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Sandra Lanni highlights some of the special treatment that religious schools have received at the expense of the city’s public schools. Among the examples cited:

* O’Brien Field has, with exceptions for only two seasons, routinely been kept off limits to public school interscholastic sports programs in order to favor St. Raphael Academy. Further, the field “is locked to the public for the entire year other than the months it has been permitted to the St. Raphael Academy football team for practice. These actions of the City not only impact municipal taxpayers as a whole, they directly and specifically impact the programs available to public junior and senior high school students in Pawtucket.”

* A request by public school athletic directors for the use of the McKinnon/Alves soccer field permitted to St. Raphael Academy was denied even when it resulted in the cancelling of public school games and practices as a result of insufficient field space.

The ACLU’s memo concludes: “The manner in which the City of Pawtucket issues field permits benefits only one type of private entity – private schools operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence. The City’s actions are not neutral and therefore impermissibly advance religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Lead plaintiff Maggi Rogers said today: “For decades, the city of Pawtucket has given special treatment to Saint Raphael Academy, while treating student-athletes in its public schools as second-class citizens. As a lifelong resident of Pawtucket who has been a student-athlete, a coach, a parent, and a teacher in its public schools, I know that the opportunities for personal growth, physical health, and higher education that are fundamentally connected with sports are innumerable. We are hopeful the courts will redress this issue that the city has refused to address.”

A copy of the ACLU’s trial memorandum, as well as other documents in the case, can be accessed at

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