KENILWORTH, NJ — A state judge has rejected an attempt by the parents of two sisters to force St. Theresa’s Catholic school in Kenilworth to readmit their children, seven months after the father won a highly publicized court fight to get the older girl on the boys’ basketball team.
Superior Court Judge Donald Kessler last week refused the parents’ request, admonishing them for making their dispute with the school public and criticizing them for failing to point to a law that allows a court to intervene in a private school’s choice as to who to admit and who not.
“We are thankful that the court has recognized that St. Theresa’s School, a private Catholic school within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, acted appropriately according to the Church’s rules and practices, and consistent with its absolute rights as protected by the First Amendment,” said Jim Goodness, Vice Chancellor and Director of Communications Archbishop of Newark, in a statement released on Aug. 14.
The ruling was the latest legal confrontation between the school and the girls’ father, Scott Phillips. Phillips sued the school and the Archdiocese of Newark after St. Theresa’s dropped the girls’ basketball team for lack of players, demanding that his seventh-grade daughter Sydney be allowed to play on the boys’ team.
Kessler initially denied that request but reversed it when he discovered another school in the diocese had allowed a girl on a boys’ team. During the process, the girls were expelled for the parents’ violation of school rules to sue the school, a decision with Archbishop Joseph Tobin overturned.
The school’s policy states that any legal action against the school will result in students’ expulsion.
But when Phillips and his wife, Theresa Mullen, applied for Sydney’s and her younger sister Kaitlyn’s re-enrollment for the new school year it was denied. The school claimed the family had disrupted the school.
“From the beginning of this unfortunate affair, we have asserted clearly and consistently that the school and the archdiocese took the steps they did for two sole reasons,” Goodness said. “We sought to ensure that the school and the men and women who undertook this ministry could continue to fulfill the school’s Catholic mission for the benefit of the children and parents it serves.
“We also sought to protect the serenity and well-being of a larger school and parish community that has been victimized by the behavior of two parents who would not accept the rules by which the school operates. At all times we acted not to punish anyone, but to protect the vital Catholic mission of a community of learning and faith.”
The parents also wished to expand their litigation to include the school and other parents who signed an online petition to have the family removed. Both parties said they felt bullied, and the Phillips claimed other parents were engaging in this behavior as well.
“We wish also to be clear that this is not a day for rejoicing,” Goodness said. “Although the family at the center of this lawsuit was unsuccessful in its efforts to disrupt and inflict further damage on the school community, we wish them no ill will. It is our hope that the parents will learn from this experience as they seek alternative venues for their children’s education and athletic recreation.”