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AND THE KING TAKETH AWAY: Catholic schools pondering legal action against IHSA

 

3/28/2005 9:16:00 PM by JOE TROST - Chicago Sun Times

 

Just days after the Illinois High School Association announced a multifaceted plan that aims to restore competitive balance among private and public high schools, a number of Catholic schools could be taking legal action against the governing body.

 

Leading the charge is Providence president Father Richard McGrath, who contends that the IHSA is denying Catholic students equal protection under the law and discriminates against them based on their religion.

 

"We are doing our homework with our lawyers right now,'' said McGrath, one of a number of Catholic leaders who believes this is a violation of the First and 14th Amendments. "This could end up in federal court.''

 

Last weekend, the IHSA officially announced a 1.65 multiplier that will be applied to the enrollment of all non-boundaried schools with 450 or more students. The definition of a non-boundaried school includes all private, lab, charter, residential and magnet schools.

 

"We don't have control over whether people sue us or not,'' IHSA executive director Marty Hickman said. "If that does happen, we will defend ourselves.''

 

The boundary between Class A and AA also was set at a fixed number of 735 students for all sports except football. The total of 735 was derived by averaging the cutoffs used for the last 10 years. This plan will go into effect in the fall.

 

Missouri has been sued over its enrollment multiplier and has won in court each time.

 

"The IHSA is not worried about the Luther Souths of the world,'' McGrath said. "They did this because of programs like Providence, Joliet Catholic, Hales Franciscan, Leo, St. Francis and others. But this is going to hurt a lot of smaller Catholic schools that are trying to field competitive programs. Catholic schools need to stand together. That's what we plan to do.''

 

In soccer alone, this change will move about 60 schools from Class A to AA in both boys and girls soccer.

 

"I know all our coaches and kids are looking at this as a challenge,'' Joliet Catholic athletic director Dan Sharp said. "But Catholics have been discriminated against for thousands of years. Now we're beating the lion, and this change comes. So I have mixed emotions.''

 

With the new multiplier in place, all non-boundaried schools throughout Illinois with enrollments of at least 450 will move to Class AA.

 

"Other states have tried this, and there haven't been any major changes,'' Mother McAuley athletic director Nancy Pederson said. "People have to pay extra to go to a private school, and that is their right, whether they live right around the school or not. This new rule is going to hurt a lot of small Catholic schools.''

 

St. Viator president Tom von Behren pointed out that the IHSA task force told people the multiplier would not be used less than eight weeks ago.

 

"I have no idea what happened between January and now,'' von Behren said. "We need to get our leadership together and look at our options. I think this is going to end up in the courts.''

 

According to Anne Wilson Lokken, a school constitution lawyer at Franczek-Sullivan in Chicago, it may be hard to prove the IHSA violated the First and 14th Amendments.

 

"Students have no constitutional right to participate in interscholastic athletics,'' Wilson Lokken said. "The IHSA rule, on its face, applies to a variety of private and public non-boundaried schools. It does not appear to single out Catholic schools and does not impact any student's right to practice the religion of his or her choice.

 

"As long as the IHSA has a rational reason for the rule, it will probably withstand any constitutional challenges.''

 

A meeting between Catholic leaders to discuss legal options could come next week.

 

"Members of the IHSA may claim that this decision is based on a lack of boundaries and not on religious affiliation,'' McGrath said. "But it is a fact that almost all the schools which have offended the IHSA membership by winning what is perceived as too many games and too many championships are Catholic high schools. Each of these schools is an agency of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.''

 

 

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