Durham Catholic school closes over backlash after asking gay alumna to speak

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – A Durham Catholic school will be closed Friday after administration learned of potential backlash from asking a gay alumna to speak. 

Father Christopher VanHaight sent a letter to parents informing them Immaculata Catholic School would be closed and apologized for any “inconvenience this may cause to you and the schedule for your family that day.”

VanHaight said the school was to start its Black History Month celebrations during Friday morning prayer. 

“Regrettably, I understand from a variety of reports 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,” he wrote.

Alston was initially slated to speak during Friday’s events. 

“In the education and formation of your children, it is our mission as a Catholic school to assist Catholic parents in clearly teaching our Catholic faith, show respect for the dignity of every human person, and to invite all children to encounter Our Lord Jesus and to follow Him,” the pastor wrote. 

In a statement, Alston said she was “deeply disappointed” to be uninvited to speak and see the event canceled altogether.

“By depriving the students at Immaculata the chance to honor Black history, and in doing so, condemning the lives and rights of the LGBTQ community, is sending a sad, regressive, life-altering message to our children.”

The group “Restore DC Catholicism” asked people to “consider a picket of that event or a protest from inside it,” if Alston’s invitation to speak at the school was not rescinded.

Parent Adam Dickenson said he understands the school’s decision to close over safety concerns, but was disappointed Alston won’t be able to speak to the students.

“It’s important to me, especially in this day and age, that we don’t cave to bullies and cave to hate,” Dickenson said.

Parents said the school and parish are known for welcoming all members of the community, which Brad Williams said is part of the reason he sent his children there.

“That’s exactly the kind of environment I want my kids to be in — where people who maybe don’t fit in with that stereotypical religious or Catholic background are the kinds of people they’re exposed to. I think it’s fantastic and I hope my daughter has the opportunity to hear (Alston) speak in the future,” Williams said.

Alston, who earned her law degree from the University of North Carolina after graduating from North Carolina State University, joined the city council in 2017. 

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