Madison’s neighborhood revolt

After a heated months-long battle with the city of Madison over whether Edgewood High School’s athletic field can be used to host games, the Catholic school filed a federal lawsuit against the city Wednesday alleging religious discrimination.

The lawsuit claims Madison has imposed city ordinances in an “arbitrary, unequal and unlawful” way by restricting the use of Edgewood’s athletic field to only team practice and gym classes, and refusing to give the school an electrical permit to add lights to the field.

“All of the city’s public high schools and the University of Wisconsin-Madison share the same zoning classification as Edgewood, yet the City is imposing these restrictions on Edgewood alone,” the lawsuit states.

In a statement, Edgewood said it needed to file the lawsuit to meet a deadline, and is still interested in other ways to resolve the issue with the city.

This past spring, the city’s zoning department issued Edgewood two notices of ordinance violations for hosting athletic competitions on its field, including a girls’ soccer game, after the zoning administrator said the school’s master plan prohibits Edgewood from using the field for athletic contests.

Madison’s Zoning Board of Appeals upheld that interpretation at a July meeting that drew some 170 people, most in support of allowing games on the field along with some neighbors who argued competitions bring traffic, noise and environmental concerns. Edgewood’s lawsuit also appeals the zoning board’s decision.

Wording in the school’s master plan describes the intended use of the field as being for athletic practices and gym classes — without mentioning competitions.

Edgewood’s attorneys have contended that wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of uses, while residents have suggested games were intentionally left out to allay neighbors frustrated with the increased use of the field since it was upgraded in 2015.

Residents of the surrounding Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood have organized against Edgewood’s attempts to bring further improvements to the field — especially a 2017 plan that would have added stadium seating, lights, a sound system and permanent bathrooms — arguing that the field disrupts their quiet neighborhood. Many put signs in their yard reading, “No new stadium.”

On Aug. 3, Edgewood requested to repeal its master plan, which would allow it to host competitions.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway had initially sponsored Edgewood’s request to repeal the master plan but withdrew her support in light of the lawsuit.

“The City of Madison does not discriminate against any religion,” Rhodes-Conway said in a statement Wednesday. “Edgewood High School is free to pursue the repeal of its Master Plan utilizing normal city processes.”

Madison’s public high schools do not have master plans, while UW-Madison does. In its federal complaint, Edgewood lists 11 facilities that it says UW-Madison uses for activities not specified in its master plan.

The facilities listed include the Near West Fields, the Near East Fields, the Natatorium and the Goodman Softball Complex, which the complaint maintains are all used for competitions without that use being specified in UW’s master plan.

Edgewood argues it is being discriminated against on the basis of religion because it is being treated differently than secular schools in the area. It also argues that the First Amendment and due process rights of its students, its property rights and state-level religious protections have been violated.

The lawsuit also argues that hosting games furthers Edgewood’s “religious mission” by helping students develop discipline, moral standards, character and unity. By restricting these games, the complaint alleges the city of Madison imposed a “substantial burden” on Edgewood students’ religious exercise, which it states is a violation of federal law.

Edgewood also claims the city has discriminated against the school by not giving it an electrical permit to install outdoor lights on its field in a timely manner. According to the complaint, Edgewood’s lighting application was found to be in compliance with the city’s lighting and zoning ordinances, and was approved earlier this year, but the school has still not received its permit.

City Attorney Michael May said the city does not believe it has violated Edgewood’s religious rights.

“It is disappointing that Edgewood chose the route of a lawsuit rather than following the City’s zoning process as other landowners do,” May said.

In its statement, Edgewood said it filed the lawsuit when it did because it wanted to “preserve its ability to challenge the Zoning Board of Appeals decision” that was made in July. The school needed to appeal within 30 days of when that decision was filed, according to the lawsuit.

Edgewood said it was disappointed to learn that the mayor had pulled her support for the school’s request to repeal its master plan, especially since Rhodes-Conway and May were the ones who had recommended it. Edgewood said it told the mayor and city attorney’s office weeks ago that it needed to file the lawsuit before the master plan repeal came before the City Council for a vote in order to meet its deadline.

“It is our hope that the Council will still pass the ordinance, but we are reviewing all of our options for ensuring that our students are treated equally,” Edgewood said.

Another option available to Edgewood would be to apply to modify its master plan to include athletic competitions as an intended use of its field. At July’s meeting, zoning board members encouraged Edgewood to go through this process so they could get the community on board.

In its lawsuit, Edgewood contends that it has the right to play games on its own field, as it has been doing “lawfully and openly” for nearly 100 years.

The request to repeal Edgewood’s master plan is scheduled to go before the City Council Sept. 3.

I will admit to not having a whole lot of sympathy for Edgewood specifically and religious high schools who, it is alleged, swipe athletically talented students from area public schools. .(Though that is increasingly a moot point given public school choice, and the reality is that public schools that are powers in certain sports were magically finding students who didn’t live in that school district playing for the school.)
But the neighbors’ opinion is ridiculous. None of them have been in that neighborhood longer than Edgewood High School and Edgewood College have. The “disruption” of, for instance, high school football games ends by 10 p.m., and no one has more than five regular-season home games. It is even more ridiculous to claim that a high school sporting event is disruptive, but a UW football game — where people park in every possible place, including front lawns — isn’t disruptive.

It’s also amusing me for the officially atheist City of Madison to be sued for religious discrimination. I suspect that should this lawsuit go forward, whatever liberal Madison judge will rule for the city, and that judge then will be reversed either at the appellate level or certainly by the state Supreme Court.

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