No Establishment Clause Violation in RI Sports Field Allocation Dispute

The United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island has ruled that the City of Pawtucket’s football and soccer field permitting policies do not violate the Establishment Clause (readers may remember that the City of Pawtucket was the defendant in an important Establishment Clause case several years ago, Lynch v. Donnelly).

Plaintiffs, a collection of parents of public school students in Pawtucket, alleged that the City was “preferentially allocating permits for the use of publicly owned and maintained athletic fields to private religious schools.”  Because both the public and parochial schools within the City generally do not have athletic fields on their own respective grounds, they have had to share the City’s public fields.  The District Court’s excruciatingly detailed factual findings about the history of field allocation across the years indicate that for a long period, that arrangement seemed acceptable.  But an athletic director for one of the public schools became disgruntled about scheduling difficulties, and decided that displeasure as to the allocation of practice field permits warranted an Establishment Clause claim. 

Applying the Lemon and endorsement tests, the Court rejected the claim.  The City granted preference to public schools over the parochial schools in the scheduling of games, and public schools were advantaged in some ways, but not in others.  “The Court need not complicate a simple analysis: the City’s permitting policies implement the clearly secular purpose of allocating limited game and practice field space to all junior high and high school students within the City.” 

As to effect, the plaintiffs’ claim was that because the only private schools which benefited from the policy were Catholic, that in itself violated the Establishment Clause.  That argument was, quite properly, rejected by the court, which noted that

The Supreme Court has consistently rejected the premise that conduct which in some manner aids an institution with a religious affiliation violates the Establishment Clause. See Mueller, 463 U.S. at 393. It is “well-established” that a state may reimburse parents for expenses associated with transporting their children to and from school and that a state may loan secular textbooks to all schoolchildren within the state. Id. Some benefit flowing from the government to religion is permissible, as “not every [practice] that confers an indirect, remote or incidental benefit upon [religion] is, for that reason alone, constitutionally invalid.”  Lynch, 465 U.S. at 683.

The case is Rogers v. Mulholland, 2012 WL 1565091 (D.R.I. May 4, 2012).

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