A Catholic school in Durham, N.C., canceled classes and a Black History Month event Friday because various groups planned to protest the appearance of a lesbian speaker at the program.
The speaker in question, Vernetta Alston, is a Durham City Council member, an attorney, and an alumna of the school, Immaculata Catholic, which provides education from early childhood through middle school, The News & Observer of Raleigh reports. She was to speak at Immaculata Friday.
"Regrettably, I understand from a variety of sources that a number of groups are planning demonstrations at our school that day, to register their respective opinions regarding Vernetta Alston, an Immaculata alumna and Durham City Council member, who initially had been listed as one of the event speakers," Christopher VanHaight, the school's pastor, wrote in a letter to parents, according to the paper. "As pastor I cannot place our Immaculata students into this contentious environment."
His letter did not say if groups objected to Alston because she is a lesbian or for some other reason. He referred questions to the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, which had not responded to local media's inquiries by press time.
Alston, who was set to speak on influential African-American women, wrote a letter of her own saying she was "deeply disappointed" in VanHaight's decision.
"Immaculata is a religious institution and I believe strongly in the freedom to believe and worship how one chooses, even if a belief conflicts with something fundamental to my own life," she wrote, according to The News & Observer.
"That said," she continued, "adherence to that basic principle means that I can freely say that the Church, by depriving the students at Immaculata of the chance to honor Black history, and in doing so, condemning the lives and rights of the LGTBQ community, is sending a sad, regressive, and life-altering message to our children - that the voices and experiences of those within the Black community can be canceled and that inclusion is not valued by some who are charged with shaping their character. I reject that message." She said the school also canceled other Black History Month events.
Some parents also objected to the cancellation. "This was not a school decision," Danielle Sutton, chair of the school's African-American Heritage Committee, told the paper. "There was no conversation between church officials and the heritage committee. It's very disheartening."
Parent Brad Williams told local TV station WRAL that he expected the school to invite speakers who had different backgrounds than the students, and he was disappointed in the cancellation. He said he respects people's right to protest, but "I guess I'm a little concerned that they felt that doing it at the school was the best way to express that dissatisfaction."