Damien, St. Lucy’s, Oaks Christian and St. Bonaventure file federal lawsuit against CIF …

Four Southland parochial high schools are claiming religious bias and lack of due process in a federal lawsuit fighting a California Interscholastic Federation decision to pull their sports teams from mixed public-private school leagues and place them in new leagues made up of predominantly religious schools.

Lawyers representing Damien, Oaks Christian, St. Bonaventure and St. Lucy’s high schools filed federal lawsuits Thursday against the CIF State office, CIF-Southern Section and Southern Section commissioner Rob Wigod in hopes of reversing a decision that would place the schools’ athletic teams in playoff divisions and leagues comprised of parochial schools beginning with the 2014-15 school year.

The move is an escalation by the schools after they lost their appeals hearing with a Southern Section executive committee in March. At that hearing, attorneys argued from a range points, including religious bias in the case of Damien and St. Lucy’s, to lack of due process for all four schools during their appeals.

Both Damien and St. Lucy’s are currently in the Sierra League and in the Mt. SAC Area for playoff groupings. Under the new placements, Damien, St. Lucy’s and Pomona Catholic would be moved to the parochial area for playoff and league placement. Pomona Catholic is not part of the lawsuit.

“They did an area placement and moved three schools from the Mt. SAC Area,” said Los Angeles-based attorney Robert Prata, who represents Damien and St. Lucy’s. “The only three schools they moved from the area are the Catholic schools.

“They contend they did it on the basis of competitive equity, but no other schools, no matter how good they are, have been moved.”

In recent years, the Southern Section has gotten a push to separate private and public schools and form leagues consisting solely of private schools. The Southern Section office declined to comment on the lawsuits per office policy during matters of litigation.

All four schools will begin the final year of the current league and playoff division cycle this fall. The Southern Section holds re-leaguing meetings every four years.

Although three separate lawsuits were filed on Thursday, an underlying theme in all of them was that the schools did not get proper due process during the appeals phase.

At the March appeals hearing before Southern Section executive committee, lawyers contend that the schools did not get a fair shake because the committee was not unbiased.

“Nowhere in American jurisprudence is the entity that hears the appeal the same entity that already decided the matter from which the appeal has been taken,” Prata said. “CIF is mandated under the education code to provide a neutral appeals process. They never did. It was not a legitimate appeals panel.”