DALLAS — No one wants to play ball with the Jesuits.
Dallas' Jesuit College Preparatory School and Houston's Strake Jesuit College Preparatory School are too big to compete against other private schools, and barred from competition with public schools by Texas law.
One school and one football dad want to change that.
Dallas Jesuit College Preparatory School and Charles Gonzalez, the father of a student at the school, have filed a suit against the University Interscholastic League in U.S. District Court in Dallas.
They want a federal court to even the playing field between Texas and other states, 47 of which allow public and private schools to play in the same league. Dallas Jesuit and Houston Strake Jesuit are the only two Jesuit schools in the country denied the opportunity to play in a public school league.
Houston Strake is not a party to the lawsuit, but athletic director Bill McDonald said officials there are watching it “with great interest.”
So is Mark Shmiel, who has been Strake's quarterback for three years. “It's a tough situation not being in a district, but we have to leave a good impression that we are very competitive. Hopefully, that will lead us in the right direction into a new district.”
The lawsuit is a bit of a last resort for Dallas Jesuit. Father Philip Postell, the school's president, told the Dallas Morning News that he's even petitioned then Gov. George W. Bush about the problem.
“I have contacted the governor, the UT regents — I don't know what more to do,” Father Postell said. “I didn't want to do a lawsuit.”
But with a nearly century-long tradition against him, a lawsuit he shall have. Since 1918, the University Interscholastic League, known as UIL, has banned all private schools from membership.
The reason for the ban is recruitment for athletic programs, according to officials. They say that because Catholic schools do not have boundaries around the areas from which they draw students, like public schools, they could recruit players from any place in the city and take the best players, leaving public schools' teams at a supposed disadvantage.
Jesuit has said it would abide by all of the league's rules, including any restrictions against athletic recruitment.
The league's director, William Farney, said his organization received a copy of the lawsuit, filed Nov. 22. By early December no trial date had been set.
He noted that the league's voting members have been cool toward Dallas Jesuit's letters and pleas to be allowed to join.
“We have been aware that Jesuit has wanted to come into the UIL. Public schools on several [occasions] have overwhelmingly voted not to admit a private school,” Farney said.
Dallas Jesuit now plays sports as an independent program after the collapse of the four-team Texas Christian Interscholastic League last spring. Its enrollment of 960 students makes it too large to play in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools.
Jim Harris, Dallas Jesuit's attorney, said the suit is three-pronged.
First, he said, the school believes that the league's denial of membership to private schools interferes with a fundamental right of parents to educate their children. Also, the lawsuit claims that discrimination against private schools by a state entity is illegal.
Thirdly, the suit claims Dallas Jesuit is being denied protection under the Texas Religious Restoration Act, which prohibits state entities from putting a burden on anyone's practice of religion unless there is a compelling state interest.
Dallas Jesuit officials say there is no such interest.
Father Postell said by denying Jesuit admittance, the league is also affecting the school's mission to educate youths.
“Education takes place in and out of the classroom. Part of the whole picture of education is to have extracurricular opportunities,” he said. “These opportunities are severely limited when one does not belong to a conference.”
In the lawsuit, Dallas Jesuit says its admittance to the league “will enrich the competitive experience for the UIL's current students as well as for Jesuit's students.”
(CNS contributed to this story)