PAWTUCKET — The Rhode Island ACLU has asked a federal judge to rule as unconstitutional —and therefore without need for a trial -- the city's alleged longstanding practice of giving preferential treatment to parochial schools over public schools when granting permits for the use of city athletic fields, as a lawsuit contends.
The lawsuit against the city was filed in October of 2009 by the ACLU on behalf of seven Pawtucket parents, including two members of the then-Pawtucket School Committee, and their children. Those parents and other public school coaches and officials maintained that complaints had been made to the city for years about this practice but the problem persisted. At the time the suit was filed, lead plaintiff Maggi Rogers, who first complained to city officials about the problem under the Doyle administration, said she had been “frustrated by six years of stonewalling by city officials.”
It was cited in the lawsuit that O'Brien Field, a public field that was refurbished with taxpayer money in 2001, had since been reserved almost exclusively for use by St. Raphael Academy, a Catholic school operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence. The suit also 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.
According to a press release from the Rhode Island ACLU, its motion for summary judgment that was filed on Wednesday by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Sandra Lanni follows months of discovery in the lawsuit. Among other points, Lanni noted that until last year, the city's office of parks and recreation had no written policies governing the issues of permits for city-owned athletic fields. She wrote that, even a new policy that was instituted (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.”
The ACLU's motion for summary judgment argues that “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 motion argues that the written policies adopted last year “codify” both a permitting history and “a substantial amount of discretion in the City officials charged with the authority to issue the permits.” The motion alleges that “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.”
Additionally, it is alleged in the motion that “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 17 of the public high school and junior high school fall soccer teams share two City fields for games and three City fields for practices.”
The motion further stated that 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 this denial resulted in the cancelling of public school games and practices as a result of insufficient field space.”
The ACLU's memo concluded: “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 compete and absolute discretion, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Further, the Superintendent has excised 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.”
In its responses, the City has denied the allegations and maintained that it does not give preferential treatment to St. Raphael Academy. Mayor Doyle and other city officials have maintained that the city's position regarding the use of playing fields had been one of trying to accommodate all of the city schools' athletic teams, both public and private. A lawyer for the city previously asked a judge to decide the case in Pawtucket's favor.
A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence had also previously issued a statement saying that St. Raphael Academy did not believe that it received preferential traetment with regard to athletic fields in the City.
In addition to Mulholland, the 2009 lawsuit names Doyle, who is no longer mayor, as a defendant, as well as Mulholland's former boss, City Public Works Director John Carney, who recently retired. Mulholland is the lone defendant who is still employed by the city.
Mayor Donald Grebien said on Friday that because the case is still pending and is in the “discovery” stage, he wanted to refrain from commenting on it. He said that after consulting with attorneys involved in the case, the City recently requested some additional information from the plaintiffs' side, and that once he gets that response, he will make a decision regarding the case continuing.