ACLU Sues Pawtucket Over Special Treatment Given To Parochial Schools

October 14, 2009 12:00 am

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The Rhode Island ACLU today filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Pawtucket, charging that the Parks and Recreation Division has, for a number of years, given preferential treatment to parochial schools over public schools in granting permits for the use of city athletics fields. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of seven Pawtucket parents and their children, seeks a court order declaring unconstitutional both the preferential treatment to religious schools and the City’s lack of any objective standards for granting permits for use of the fields.

A number of parents and public school officials have complained to the City for several years about this problem, all to little avail. For example, O’Brien Field, a public field that was refurbished with tax money in 2001, the suit claims, has since been reserved exclusively for use by Saint Raphael Academy, “particularly on week-day afternoons in the fall season, despite repeated requests by various public school officials for use of [the field] for public school sponsored interscholastic sports.” The suit further alleges that public junior high school teams have been denied the use of at least two other fields, which have often been reserved for the use of St. Raphael and/or Bishop Keough Regional High School’s athletic teams, both of which are private sectarian schools.

The suit additionally notes that the Office of Parks and Recreation has no written policies governing the issuance of permits for city owned athletic fields, which is left to the total discretion of the parks Superintendent, William Mulholland. “The long-standing lack of written policies,” claims the suit, “has enabled and continues to enable [the City] to provide preferential field allocation to religious schools.” As a result, “the public junior high school and the public high school athletic programs cannot be fully accommodated because they have been assigned insufficient field space for practice and for games.” For example, the Tolman High School soccer team was recently unable to practice as planned because no public field was available to them. Various efforts by parents and others over the years to informally resolve the matter have been unsuccessful, leading to the filing of today’s lawsuit.

Lead plaintiff Maggi Rogers, who first complained to city officials about the problem more than five years ago, said today: “We are frustrated by six years of stonewalling by city officials, grateful for the assistance of the RI ACLU, and optimistic that the Constitution will prevail. It is 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.” RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown added: “It is appalling that city officials have so cavalierly, and for so long, discriminated against their own public school students in order to benefit religious schools. We are hopeful that today’s lawsuit will bring an end to this disturbing practice.”

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