RI lawsuit over playing field access goes to court

January 18, 2010

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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—A lawsuit that accuses the city of Pawtucket of giving a Catholic school preferential access to public playing fields is going to court this week.

U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi is scheduled to hold a preliminary conference Wednesday in her chambers on the lawsuit, which was brought by a group of parents of public school children and is spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The lawsuit says city officials are violating the First Amendment by allowing Saint Raphael Academy, a Catholic school, exclusive access to city playing fields. The parents say the arrangement has resulted in public school athletes having insufficient field space for practices and games.

They say Saint Raphael's football team has for years been allowed to practice on a city-owned field, which was refurbished through public funds, even though a public middle school has tried to place its soccer team on the same space.

City officials deny any favoritism and say every school's team is given a place to play. They say decisions about how to allocate field permits are based on field conditions, proximity to schools and team schedules.

The lawsuit wants a court order declaring the city's practice of granting Saint Raphael exclusive access to public fields unconstitutional. It also wants the city to establish clear standards for how it allocates field permits.

Saint Raphael is a well-regarded Catholic school in the city, with alumni including Pawtucket's mayor James Doyle, state attorney general Patrick Lynch and Pawtucket's superintendent of parks and recreations William Mulholland -- who awards the field permits.