Spurned by Catholic school, gay Durham councilwoman sees teaching moment

Her Catholic grade school may have canceled classes to prevent her from speaking at an assembly over her stance on same-sex marriage, but Durham City Councilwoman Vernetta Alston said she hopes to turn the difficult episode into an opportunity.

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Ken Smith & Sarah Krueger
, WRAL reporters
DURHAM, N.C. — Her Catholic grade school may have canceled classes to prevent her from speaking at an assembly over her stance on same-sex marriage, but Durham City Councilwoman Vernetta Alston said she hopes to turn the difficult episode into an opportunity.

Alston, who is openly gay and is married to a woman, was to speak Friday at a Black History Month event at Immaculata Catholic School in Durham. But church officials rescinded the invitation and canceled school altogether for the day.

"I knew they had prepared dances and all sorts of programming that they had put a lot of work into and were excited about around a wonderful cause for celebration," Alston said of the planned event.

In a letter to parents Thursday, Fr. Christopher VanHaight, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, said that several groups were planning demonstrations at Immaculata Catholic School to protest Alston's appearance.

"Apparently, there was one small complaint from a conservative member of the community," said Danielle Sutton, a member of the school's African-American Heritage Committee, which had put the program together.

A group out of the Washington, D.C., area encouraged people in an online post to complain to the school and the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, protest at the school or keep children out of school for the day.

“As a pastor, I cannot place our Immaculata students into this contentious environment,” VanHaight said of planned demonstrations, apologizing to parents for any inconvenience.

Alston said her invitation to speak had been rescinded even before word of a possible protest spread. She said it was because her support of same-sex marriage "is in conflict with the church's position on that issue."

"It's been unfortunate," she said in a Friday evening interview with WRAL News, noting that her initial instinct was sadness for Immaculata students and the people who had put together the program.

"I could see myself in those kids," said Alston, who graduated from Immaculata. "For them to lose out on this opportunity and, in the process, receive this message is really disheartening."

The theme of Friday's program was honoring influential African-American women.

"Immaculata is a fantastic place, and we are welcoming, and we want and hope, as a committee, that we can still have a conversation with church officials and we could eventually re-invite Ms. Alston. I know she said she would still be interested in coming, despite all this," Sutton said.

In a statement issued Friday, committee members said they were stunned by the decision to rescind Alston's invitation.

"The real issue here is a decision to cancel the speaking engagement of an accomplished, well-respected, local black female leader who also happens to be an alumna of our school – a product of Catholic education – and how that decision does not reconcile with our community values," the group said in the statement.

Alston worked several years for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and helped exonerate a wrongfully convicted man, the committee noted, and would serve as an example for the students about a life of service.

"We remain committed to making that happen," the statement said. "Our children need to hear her message. They deserve to hear her."

Alston said she would welcome another opportunity to speak at Immaculata, saying the school community includes "a lot of wonderful, caring people invested in the values I share."

Efforts to bring her back might be in vain, however, as the school has implemented a policy barring elected officials from speaking at school functions.

"What’s happened is really a shame," Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said. "It's really important that we don't discriminate against anybody for any reason."

Kaaren Haldeman, another member of the African-American Heritage Committee, said she recognizes that the Catholic Church considers homosexuality a sin. But that doesn't justify mistreating Alston.

"I also grew up with the understanding that it is our job to challenge what we feel is morally wrong, and this is an injustice," Haldeman said. "I think that’s part of the faith that I hold most dear. My faith is a faith of action and to call out injustice when I see it. This is not what our school is about. We are based on love, understanding, integrity and service."

WRAL News asked the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh which groups were going to protest, how the school learned of planned protests and how the decision was made to close the school. The Diocese did not answer the questions but instead issued a statement which read, "Bishop Zarama continues to support the recent decisions Fr. Chris made in this matter and looks forward to further supporting him in inviting constructive dialogue with the school, parish and broader community."

Alston likewise said she hopes the episode prompts discussions among the church, the Durham community and the Immaculata community regarding inclusion, accountability and doing the right thing.

"I think the values around love and inclusion should and will prevail," she said. "Now, it's just a matter of putting in the work to get there."