It wasn’t just a fear of protests that caused a Catholic school to cancel an appearance by a lesbian politician last week — it’s also the fact that she is a lesbian politician.
Immaculata Catholic School in Durham, N.C., canceled classes Friday along with a Black History Month event that was to feature City Council member Vernetta Alston, an African-American lesbian, along with other speakers.
Father Chris VanHaight, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, which runs the school, said initially that he called off the event and closed the school for the day because various groups of people had planned to protest Alston’s presence. However, in his Sunday sermon and subsequent statements, he said her identity itself was a problem as well.
“The theme for that Friday morning prayer was going to be a strong black woman. Vernetta Alston is that,” he said at Sunday Mass, according to Raleigh TV station WRAL. “But she’s also a politician — and a pro-gay-marriage politician — and that was problematic.” The Roman Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage.
He said he didn’t know Alston, an alumna of Immaculata Catholic School, was going to be a speaker until he started getting complaints from parents, he said. He added that he “had credible reports that came, actually, from parents that there were going to be two opposing groups of protesters” at the school. He feared for students’ safety “after Charlottesville,” he said, referring to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Virginia, which saw a rally participant drive his car into a crowd of opposing protesters, killing one.
After his sermon, VanHaight addressed the congregation by saying, “To my gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning brothers and sisters: Not only are you welcome here, you are valued here.”
Still, in a statement to local media Monday, VanHaight reiterated his antigay justification for canceling Alston’s appearance. He “made the decision to rescind the invitation to Ms. Alston after receiving messages from some parents concerned that having a pro-gay marriage politician speak at the school was calling into question the school’s commitment to upholding Catholic moral teaching,” he said, according to The Herald-Sun, a Durham newspaper.
“It can be difficult to balance being clear about what the Church teaches and trying to be open and welcoming to all people, but that is my role as pastor,” he continued in an email to The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer of Raleigh. “I informed the diocese after I made the decision and they were fully supportive. I do deeply regret that although I had no intention of disrespecting Ms. Alston that is exactly what happened. I have already expressed my regrets to her over the way this all played out.”
Some parents and other area residents have criticized the cancellation. “Vernetta Alston is a lot more than a gay person,” Brad Williams, who has a daughter at the school, told WRAL. “She’s a lot more than a woman who is married to another woman. She is so active in social justice, which is such an important part of Catholic teaching.” Alston is a lawyer and anti-death penalty activist, among other social justice work.
And Daniel Golonka, an eighth-grader at the school, wrote a letter to The News & Observer saying he wished Alston had made her appearance. “We have lost the opportunity to hear from her because of one small small idea, that people cannot be committed to the same gender,” he wrote. “This is not just. I think that God might be looking down and thinking the hateful people protesting are the sinners. Jesus came down to save us from ourselves and our hate. Jesus teaches us to love.”
“I think our school should invite her to speak again, with optional attendance,” he concluded. “I don’t care if there are protesters. I would march through them proudly with my parents and sisters, so that I may have the chance to hear her speak and to spread love.”