Home-schooled runner seeks to compete for private school

A home-schooled student and cross country standout has gone to court to challenge a Maine Principals' Association rule that bars him from competing for a private-school team.

Douglas Pelletier is permitted to run for a public-school team in his case, Wells High but he wants to compete for a Christian school, Seacoast Christian in South Berwick.

His parents, Sammy and Susan Pelletier, have sought a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court to allow Douglas and his sister, Laura, a home-schooled eighth-grader, to compete this spring for Seacoast Christian.

''I want to help my brothers and sisters and other home-schoolers in the state and protect the freedoms we always had,'' said Pelletier, who was prevented from competing in high school sports until last year because of a heel injury.

Pelletier will run track and cross country next fall for the U.S. Military Academy. He was unbeaten during his first high school cross country season last fall, winning the Class D state and regional championships with Seacoast Christian.

The Pelletiers' lawyer, Stephen Whiting of Portland, said that until this year the Pelletiers competed for Seacoast Christian with no problems. An older daughter, Samantha, ran with Seacoast Christian and is now competing for Liberty University in Virginia.

But Richard Durost, executive director of the MPA, warned schools in November that their eligibility to compete would be threatened if they allowed home-schooled students to participate on private-school teams.

The MPA rule has been in place since 1995, when the Legislature passed a law that requires public schools to allow home-schooled students in their districts to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, said Margaret Coughlin LePage, a lawyer representing the MPA.

LePage said the MPA decided against home-schooled students on private-school teams because it would give a choice that public-school kids wouldn't have and would provide an unfair advantage to some private schools, leading to abuse of the recruiting rules.

''If a particular home-schooler wanted a particular ice hockey program, it was a choice a public schooler did not have,'' LePage said.

The Pelletiers' lawyer, Stephen Whiting, said Seacoast Christian initially consulted with the MPA and was told that home-schooled athletes would be allowed if they met the school's eligibility requirements.

Whiting said the MPA's ban ''just came out of the blue.''

''It really is petty and it seems like a Little League parent's sort of mentality here.... 'We don't want these home-schoolers on these private-school teams because they might beat us.' It seems so small,'' Whiting said.

At issue, said Whiting, is religious freedom and a family's constitutional right to bring up and educate children the way they believe is best.

''(The Pelletiers) particularly want to send their children to a religious private school and the MPA essentially won't let them and is requiring them to send their kids to a public school or bar them from competing in athletics,'' Whiting said.

LePage said high school athletics are not a significant enough activity to be constitutionally guaranteed and participation in sports is voluntary.