- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

PAWTUCKET, R.I. (AP) | A fight over athletic fields in this city goes beyond who gets to play soccer where and raises thorny questions about separation of church and state and public aid to religious institutions - divisive issues that have flared repeatedly in heavily Catholic Rhode Island.

Parents of public school students accuse the city of favoring St. Raphael Academy - a prominent Catholic school and alma mater of city and state power brokers - by granting its football team exclusive use of a public field. They say it’s unconstitutional to give a religious school priority access to a field meant for public use.

“It’s a long-standing and troublesome issue,” said Maggi Rogers, whose two children played tennis for a public high school here and is among the parents suing the city. “I have a strong belief in public education, and I know that public education suffers when public resources are diverted into private education.”

City officials deny any favoritism.

Tussles over the divide between church and state are common in Rhode Island, where a recent survey from Trinity College in Connecticut showed 46 percent of the population identify themselves as Roman Catholic - the highest percentage of any state. Public support for private schools has been a particular tension source.

The latest conflict, in Pawtucket, caught the eye of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is spearheading the lawsuit.

“Government should not give special benefits to religious organizations over secular organizations, and we believe that that is precisely what has happened here,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU’s Rhode Island affiliate.

St. Raphael is a prestigious presence in Pawtucket, producing alumni including the city’s mayor, the parks and recreation superintendent - who awards field permits - and the state attorney general. For decades, the city has let St. Raphael use public fields because the school doesn’t have its own.

The school contends it doesn’t receive special treatment, saying the families of more than half its student athletes are city taxpayers. Pawtucket Public Works Director Jack Carney said that permits for the fields are allocated based on their condition, proximity to the school and team schedules - and that all teams have a place to play.

“There’s never a youth in the city of Pawtucket that’s deprived of a playing field. It never happens,” Mr. Carney said. “Maybe we don’t give them the field they want, but we never deprive them of a place to play.”

Still, the space crunch has worsened as schools have expanded their athletic programs.

Public school coaches and athletic directors say the city’s arrangement with St. Raphael leaves one fewer field available for their teams. Though the inconveniences may not always be major, they say their schools should always have first access to public fields and should never be trumped by a private school’s needs.

John Scanlon, athletic director of the public Tolman High School, said his girls soccer team was forced several years ago to practice two miles from the school on an “untreated lot” that he said was strewn with glass and dog feces.

The team’s coach, Belmiro Pereira, said he’s occasionally had to cancel practice on days when other teams, including St. Raphael, are occupying all fields of a city soccer complex.

“It has created a huge problem for the kids because they can’t practice,” Mr. Pereira said. “You’re talking about 21 girls who need a ride anywhere outside. Most of these girls don’t drive.”

The dispute largely concerns O’Brien Field, which for years has been reserved for St. Raphael football practices - even though it’s located next to a public middle school that has asked to use it for soccer. The public school is given a field across the street.

The city says it lets St. Raphael practice on O’Brien to limit wear and tear on a different field where the football team - and others - play their games.

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