Fed up that the federal shutdown was keeping them off their practice fields, a group of young lacrosse players in Northern Virginia challenged the government in court. And at least for now, they won.
A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the National Park Service to immediately reopen Langley Fork Park in McLean — which was closed Oct. 1 — and allow the boys and girls of the McLean Youth Lacrosse organization back onto the fields.
The judge’s order was not final. Attorneys are scheduled to return to federal court in Alexandria on Oct. 18 — provided the courthouse is still open and judges are still hearing civil cases — to hash out a more permanent resolution. But until then, Langley Fork Park will be open for the hundreds of kids in the youth lacrosse group, which sued the Park Service, and for anyone else who might want to use it.
“It’s a major relief,” said David “Bucky" Morris, McLean Youth Lacrosse’s executive director. “I’m not sure how long it goes for, but, hopefully, it’s long enough that it goes through the government shutdown.”
A spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Park Authority, which manages the park, said officials removed the temporary barriers at the park Thursday morning after receiving the Park Service’s permission.
“I can tell you this much: We’re glad it’s open for business. That’s the good news,” said Judy Pedersen, a spokeswoman for the Park Authority. She declined to comment on the lawsuit.
McLean Youth Lacrosse’s lawsuit does not affect other closed national parks and monuments across the country. Still, it might be somewhat embarrassing to federal officials, who have been accused of closing facilities unnecessarily to exaggerate the shutdown’s impact. And it might inspire similar legal actions.
According to local officials and the lawsuit, Langley Fork Park sits on federal land, but it is managed and maintained by the county Park Authority as part of an agreement with the National Park Service. When McLean Youth Lacrosse received a permit to use the fields there this fall, they paid the Park Authority — not the Park Service — $5,000, according to the lawsuit.
Morris, 50, of McLean, said he initially gave little thought to local officials’ warning that the two lacrosse fields at the park would be affected by a government shutdown. He said he figured that no one would stop the roughly 600 kids in his organization from entering the park.
But on Oct. 1, Morris said, temporary barriers went up, blocking off the fields, and U.S. Park Police officers chased away people who moved the barriers aside.
“I guess I was just really perplexed and thinking this is really absurd,” Morris said. “It’s just unfair that the kids are the ones getting affected by it.”
Morris said that the players — ranging from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade — were “sitting around doing nothing after school” and that he was being inundated by calls and e-mails from parents and coaches. He said he appealed to local officials to help him reopen the park — while hoping that the shutdown would end — but he soon began to fear that his efforts were as fruitless as talks in Congress.
Morris said he began to consider legal action in part because he could not understand why the federal government had closed a park it did not run. The close-knit community of McLean lacrosse parents — more than a few lawyers and high-ranking government officials among them — found a lawyer willing to handle the case for free, Morris said. The group filed a lawsuit.
“It was easier to do this and try to get it opened then to try and handle all the phone calls and the e-mails,” Morris said.
Morris said some players returned to the fields Wednesday night after U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady issued the order to reopen the park. A phone line for media inquiries at the Department of the Interior, which includes the Park Service, said messages were not being checked because of the shutdown and directed reporters to send requests to an e-mail address. No one returned a message sent to that address Thursday afternoon.