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 as Roman Catholic -- the highest percentage of any state. Religious institutions sometimes play an outsize role in public life, and the church holds political clout.
Statewide elected officials paid their respects on the most recent Inauguration Day by attending a special Mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul in Providence. The state's Catholic bishop draws attention for his spats with politicians, including U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy over his support of abortion rights.
Public support for private schools has been a particular tension source.
Students at religious and private schools receive publicly funded textbooks because of a request in the 1960s by the Roman Catholic diocese, which said the aid was necessary to sustain Catholic schools and prevent public school overcrowding.
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, the 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 since 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 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 might 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, the athletic director of the public Tolman High School, said his girls soccer team was forced several years ago to practice on an "untreated lot" about two miles from school that he said was strewn with glass and dog feces.
The team's coach, Belmiro Pereira, said he occasionally has 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 Saint 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.
As a concession, the city last year gave the public school O'Brien Field and had St. Raphael practice on its game field across the street.
But after that field sustained costly damage because of constant practices and games, the city reversed course this fall -- angering parents who thought they had reached a resolution and prompting the lawsuit.
The lawsuit wants the city barred from granting St. Raphael preferential field access and seeks clear standards for allocating field permits.
"Win or lose," said Ms. Rogers, the lawsuit's lead plaintiff, "this is something that we have to do."