Students Protest Catholic School’s Decision to Remove Rainbow Flag

Controversy over LGBT issues in one of Canada’s Catholic school systems has once again made headlines, resulting in unfortunate harm during Pride celebrations.

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Students protesting at Blessed Oscar Romero High School

To mark Pride, students at Blessed Oscar Romero High School in Edmonton, Alberta, hung a rainbow flag in the school with some additional rainbow decorations. The next day, students drew a rainbow flag in chalk at the school’s entrance. CBC reported what happened next:

 

“On Tuesday morning, student president-elect Francis Nievera was called into the principal’s office. He said he was told all the decorations must come down because the chalk was being tracked inside, which he said was understandable. But those weren’t the only reasons.

“‘They said putting up flags was a political statement and it made some people uncomfortable and we need to make everyone feel comfortable,’ said Nievera, an openly transsexual and transgender Grade 10 student. ‘To have it all torn down in less than a day kind of sucked.'”

Lori Nagy of the Edmonton Catholic School Board denied claims the decorations were authorized, and said the school’s principal was willing to support other pride celebrations. Nonetheless, Nievera’s invitation, students protested, according to the CBC: 

“Prior to the protest, a video shows an emotional Nievera, near a handful of supporters including the school mascot, address students from the stage in the school cafeteria.

“‘We have to take down all the decorations today,’ he said, setting off boos from the crowd. ‘But I just want to say because of this I really don’t feel safe.'”

“‘If you guys want to help support pride week, even though all of this will be taken down, feel free to come outside and protest.'”

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The chalk rainbow flag in dispute at Blessed Oscar Romero High School

Students gathered at the chalk rainbow flag as other students used power washers to remove it. According to the CBC, “More than 30 students refused to return to class.”

Kennedy Harper, who helped organize the school’s Pride celebrations, said administrators threatened protesting students with suspension. She commented further:

“‘It seems like along with the chalk they were just washing away their identity. . .It felt really good for a little while, seeing the school really come together and standing up for the rights of minorities whether they’re part of the LGBTQ community or not.'”

Shortly after all the decorations had been removed , school administrators then said that the flags would be allowed for the remainder of the week.

This is hardly the first time Edmonton’s Catholic school system has been roiled in LGBT-related controversies. A student at the neighboring St. Joseph Catholic High School was also asked to remove a rainbow flag he wore during a school ceremony. The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s actions in 2015 around a transgender policy saw meetings erupt into a “shouting match” as the Board approved a draft policy allowing  “just discrimination” of some youth. Elsewhere in Alberta, a former bishop referred to LGBTQ policies being implemented in Catholic schools “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic.”

The situation at Blessed Oscar Romero adds to this list of avoidable, damaging incidents where LGBTQ students are made to feel less than comfortable and even unsafe in Catholic education. No harm was caused by allowing some minor Pride decorations to be displayed, but much harm was done by power washing them and ripping them away.

Once again, it is young students in Catholic schools who are the ones leading our church to be more just and inclusive for LGBT people. And of these students’ commitment to justice for all people, Monseñor Romero would likely be very proud.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 19, 2017

 

 

Catholic Schools in Ontario Cancel Children’s Play on Gender Identity

Catholic schools in Ontario, Canada have canceled scheduled performances of a play because of concerns that its protagonist is a small child who explores gender boundaries.

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Photo of a “Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures” performance

Carousel Players, the theater company behind the play, announced the cancellations of “Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures.” According to Global Newsthe play “tells the story of 8-year-old Simon, who dreams of becoming a princess and feels boxed in gender stereotypes.”

Parents’ complaints about the content led the Niagara Catholic District School Board to cancel the show on the grounds that the play was “not age-appropriate” and students would not understand the issues it raises. The Board claimed Carousel Players did not include information in its promotional materials that the play was about gender identity.

Yet, CBC Radio reported the play, targeted at elementary age children, “was created in conjunction with representatives from several Ontario school boards to be in line with the province’s new sex-ed curriculum.” The Players were explicit in marketing their performance as such.

Not everyone is convinced the cancellations happened due to concerns over students’ ages. Jessica Carmichael, the artistic director for Carousel Players, released a statement which said, in part:

“I fear these cancellations may be based on misinformation, grown out of fear, intolerance, transphobia, homophobia and misogyny. . .The core message from the main character, Simon(e), in Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures, is that every child needs the support of friends and family no matter who they are, what they dress like, what toys they like to play with and what they imagine they can be. I wholeheartedly believe in this message.”

Carmichael further said the play has been well received when performed at other schools, where staff are “encouraging children to have conversations which promote acceptance” and where the magic of live theater “brings people together to work towards a better today and tomorrow and it encourages discussion.”

The Carousel Players have since staged a free performance, followed by a question and answer period so anyone in the local community who wished to view the play could do so.

Having not seen “Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures” myself, I cannot comment on the play’s contents, and whether it would be appropriate for elementary age children. But school officials should be aware that even young children are already grappling with questions about gender. Many trans individuals claim they had a consciousness about their identities as young as five or six years of age.

Whether through the Carousel Players or some other means, Catholic schools in Ontario and elsewhere should be addressing issues of gender identity as an essential aspect of their commitment to students’ flourishing.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 8, 2017

Vancouver Archbishop Objects to Franklin Graham’s Anti-LGBT Presence

Catholic LGBT issues have been making headlines in Canada. Here are three updates that may be of interest:

Archbishop Campaigns Against Franklin Graham

Former Presidents Bush And Clinton And Carter Attend Opening Of Billy Graham Library
Franklin Graham

Vancouver’s Archbishop Michael Miller joined other religious figures in opposing evangelical leader Franklin Graham’s attendance at a Christian gathering that happened in early March, reported The Washington Post. In an open letter, the leaders shared their concerns about anti-Muslim and anti-gay views held by the son of preacher Billy Graham, writing:

“Regrettably, Franklin Graham’s public comments appear to compromise Jesus’s mission of love and justice for all. He has made disparaging and uncharitable remarks about Muslims and the LGBTQ+ community, while portraying the election, administration and policies of US President Donald Trump as intrinsically aligned with the Christian Church.”

The letter cited, in particular, Graham’s comment that, because “the Enemy [Satan] wants to devour our homes,” LGBT people should be barred from churches and homes. Archbishop Miller and other leaders committed themselves to promoting the Christian faith as one that welcomes all people and seeks social justice.

Calgary Bishop to Retain Predecessor’s LGBT-Negative Approach to School Issues

Bishop William McGrattan, the new leader of the Catholic church in Calgary, Alberta, said he will maintain many of the policies from his predecessor, Fred Henry. Asked about LGBT issues, he told the Calgary Herald:

“With regard to gay-straight alliance, even that very terminology creates a sense of what I would say not an agenda but is promoting a certain lifestyle. In Ontario, we call that respecting differences so that we allow young people to know there are differences and that we need to respect those without labelling them with those particular terms.”

Some Albertans had hoped McGrattan’s arrival would be an opportunity for church leaders and LGBT communities to reset tense relations. But the new bishop said he “may not be as direct but I’ll be as firm” as Henry, who once described education policies that protect LGBT students as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic.”

Indeed, McGrattan told the Calgary Sun that proposed guidelines for transgender students in the province are based in gender theory which “is not truth,” and said gender transitioning “does not change the biological fact and truth of the individual.”

Officials in Catholic Education Claim Discrimination

Officials from several Catholic education systems in Alberta are complaining about a regional scholar’s criticisms of how church-affiliated schools are handling LGBTQ students. The Edmonton Sun reported:

“Two Catholic school district superintendents and two groups representing Catholic school boards and superintendents wrote to the university’s chancellor and president last fall to complain about comments made by educational policy studies professor Kristopher Wells regarding school board policies meant to protect LGBTQ students.”

Wells spoke out repeatedly during disputes in the last two years over LGBTQ guidelines being implemented in the province’s schools. In 2016, Wells released a “report card” evaluating four Catholic systems for their LGBTQ supports, all of which received either low or failing grades

Scholars, including the president of the University of Alberta where Wells is based, criticized Catholic education officials’ letters for trying to suppress academic freedom. The letters were disconcerting, Wells said, but would not silence him because “the issues at stake are far too important.”

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 14, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

 

Trans Student Honored for Making Catholic Schools More Inclusive

In the same week that the U.S. Catholic bishops praised President Trump for revoking guidelines to protect transgender students, across the border in Canada, a trans teen was honored for bringing equality to her Catholic school.

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Tru, center, with her mother, Michelle, right

Tru Wilson, 13, a resident of the suburb of Ladner, was named a Sexual Health Champion by Options for Sexual Health, a nonprofit agency in Vancouver. The Georgia Straight reported:

“[Wilson’s] family filed a human-rights complaint when Ladner’s Sacred Heart [school] refused to allow her to attend as a girl. As a result, the Catholic Independent Schools Vancouver became one of the first Catholic school boards in North America to change their policy to support gender expression and identity.”

During an awards breakfast, the teen described what transitioning had been like, saying, “I just want acceptance. . .It’s so strange that it’s hard. Why does it have to be hard?” She discussed invasive questions she has been asked and, through tears, about losing a close friend whose family would not accept her.

Tru was honored, in part, for the positive change she and her family were able to effect in Vancouver’s Catholic schools. In 2014, when she began transitioning at age 10, Sacred Heart Elementary School barred Tru from dressing in the female uniform, using female restrooms, or being called by her preferred name. Doug Lousen, the Catholic schools superintendent at the time, said “you cannot just change your sex.”

But the Wilsons, having overcome their own struggles with Tru’s coming out, did not accept Sacred Heart’s discrimination. They filed a human rights complaint against the Catholic Independent Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese, settling for an undisclosed amount and the adoption of a new transgender education policy by the Archdiocese.

That policy, believed to be the first such policy for Catholic schools in North America, allows trans students to use their preferred pronouns, as well as wear the uniform and use the restroom associated with their gender identity. Transgender students are able to file for accommodations and work with a pastoral team of medical, spiritual, and educational experts to create individualized plans for each student.

But, there has been a downside. The Archdiocese claimed that church teaching stopped schools from supporting students who medically transition. And it has not quickly become the “template” the Wilson’s lawyer had hoped it would become in Catholic education. Disputes over LGBTQ student policies have been fierce in the neighboring province of Alberta. Lastly, Tru never returned to Catholic schools, and religion has become a mixed blessing for the Wilsons. Michelle explained during the breakfast:

“‘We thought that we could kind of ignore the aspects of the faith that we didn’t necessarily agree with and take advantage of all the really good things about it. . .For me, [this experience has] reinforced that there are some great things about faith and there are some really sad things that people use to pit people each other because of faith.”

Unfortunately, as in Tru Wilson’s case, LGBTQ youth too often experience these negative aspects of faith. A trans student at a Catholic school in England was shot with a BB gun after months of bullying. In the U.S., federal guidelines aimed at protecting trans students were repealed by the Trump administration last month.

But through the steady and courageous work of people like Tru Wilson and her parents, positive changes are happening. Catholic officials should do their part to expedite such changes by preemptively adopting supportive policies for trans students like Vancouver’s.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 6, 2017

Jesuit Priest Speaks Out for Canadian Transgender Equality Bill

A Jesuit priest in Toronto, Canada, has emerged as an important voice in support of a national bill for transgender equality.

Fr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ

Fr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ, associate professor of systematic theology at Regis College, Toronto, has spoken out in favor of bill C-16 which would include gender identity and expressions as protected categories in Canada’s  Human Rights Act.  According to an article in America magazine, Fr. Mongeau stated:

“To the extent that it seeks to protect the quest of trans people to be themselves in a safe environment, Bill C-16 is something to be applauded by Christians.”

Mongeau has worked with Our Lady of Lourdes parish, situated in the gay neighborhood of Toronto.  The parish hosts a program called “All Inclusive Ministries,” which hosts a weekly Mass for the LGBT community, among other programs.

The Jesuit priest acknowledges that biological sex and gender may be more complex phenomena than simple physical characteristics.  He follows his brother Jesuit, Pope Francis, in describing church outreach to transgender people, saying:

“We must begin from the fact that the church, at this time, has no official teaching about gender identity or trans persons.”

“[Mongeau] underlines the need to, as Pope Francis suggests, accompany real people in real situations. For his part, though the Holy Father has been critical of ‘gender theory,’ he has been sensitive to preferred pronouns in the context of real encounter. That is reflected in his comments about a letter he received from a transgender man: ‘He who was a she, but is a he,’ the pope said.”

The question about pronoun usage reveals a more important question about our understanding of transgender people as human beings, Mongeau noted:

“The question of pronouns cannot be separated from the real lives of people. Asking these questions in the abstract is part of the problem we are facing because it makes it possible to evoke the image or idea that trans people somehow serve an agenda of attacking the moral fiber of society or serve an anti-Christian agenda. Trans people, in my experience, are trying to live healthy, productive and (sometimes) spiritually fruitful lives.”

In the America article, the need for equal civil protections for transgender people was expressed by Janice Towndrow, a Christian transgender woman from Toronto:

“I used to wish I had cancer because when you have cancer all the family rallies around you. But when you’re trans, you don’t have family, they kick you out.

‘It is very difficult,’ she says, even ‘comparable to biblical times,’ when lepers were shunned by the community. ‘You’re distanced; you’re pulled from your family; you’re cast out of the community. So you don’t see your children anymore. If you had a job, you probably don’t have it anymore.’ “

Janice Towndrow

And she noted how important it is for Christian churches to support transgender people and Bill c-16:

“Christian support for Bill C-16 would make a huge difference for transgender people looking to lead healthy spiritual lives, who are often alienated by communities of faith. As Ms. Towndrow explains, ‘I think somewhere along the line, everyone [in the transgender community] turns their back on the church because the church has turned its back on them.”

The bill passed Canada’s House of Commons in December, by a vote of 248-40, and is now being sent to the Senate.

While opponents of the bill continue to make their voices heard, we can thank God for courageous Catholic leaders like Fr. Mongeau and for communities like Our Lady of Lourdes parish for showing their public support for transgender equality.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 31, 2017

 

Around the Globe, LGBT Progress in Catholic Education is Slow, But Happening

handsCatholic education is a foremost way by which the church influences the world, educating millions of students, Catholic and non-Catholic, globally. Given this impact, how church officials address LGBT issues matters significantly and is therefore, frequently, a source of contention. But when done well, Catholic education can do much good for LGBT youth and their peers. This Bondings 2.0 post highlights how the complexities are playing out in several countries.

Scotland

The Catholic Church in Scotland will begin training its teachers for gender and sexuality competency inclusive of LGBTI concerns, reported Pink NewsA church spokesperson said the church has a “zero tolerance approach” to end discrimination, continuing:

” ‘The Church is working with the Catholic Head Teacher association to ensure that all teachers have adequate knowledge, understanding, and training and feel confident in addressing all aspects of relationships education, including LGBTI matters, in an appropriate and sensitive way.’ “

This commitment comes as the whole nation of Scotland  focuses on inclusion in schools, led by the campaign Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) and endorsed by all major political parties. Sixteen years ago, legislators repealed Section 28 which had barred gay-positive education in schools. The repeal did, however, not address what material should be taught. TIE’s objective now, according to The Heraldis “calling for mandatory teaching of LGBTI issues in schools to end discrimination and bullying” to save lives and equalize all students.

Questions remain about how the church’s stated commitment will be concretely enacted, given negative church teachings on homosexuality, For instance, working only through Catholic organizations may limit engagement with actual LGBT people and their families. KaleidoScot noted:

“The ‘appropriate and sensitive’ way to deal with such matters would arguably be through engagement with the very people directly affected, and liaison with teaching unions and other non-Catholic organisations would surely inform the Church’s thinking. The statement also fails to give any commitment to the teaching of LGBTI matters in Catholic schools. Furthermore, in some respects, the Church spokesperson’s statement suggests that it fails to see the need for significant changes in the way its schools operate.”

It remains to be seen what the Scottish Catholic Church’s commitment to training teachers will mean; hopefully, it will involve liberating education rather then relying on past methods which have suppressed LGBT students and staff.

Australia

In Australia, politicians are debating the Safe Schools Program to assist LGBT students, and the discussion has emerged in Catholic circles.

Peter Norden, a professor at RMIT University and a former Jesuit priest, said failing to support LGBT youth may violate international law.  Norden  published an article in the Australian Journal of Human Rights saying church teaching about homosexuality can harm young students. According to The Age, he wrote :

” ‘In many ways, same-sex attracted students are being asked to remain voiceless and invisible in some Catholic schools. . .For students that are same-sex attracted, they can be treated like second class citizens.’ “

Australian Catholic schools, which educate a fifth of the country’s students, may violate the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, Norden said. This Convention guarantees free expression, protection from violence, and dignified education. But a 2006 study of Catholic school students by Norden found high rates of self-injury and suicide, calling into question whether church officials were attending to LGBT youth’s needs:

” ‘You would hope an organisation that values empathy, mercy and engagement might have cause to review their situation.”

LGBT organizations have expressed concerns with Catholic education which, as in the United States, has religious exemptions for how it operates. Micah Scott of the Minus 18, an LGBTI youth organization, told The Age:

” ‘Many topics, including sexual and gender diversity, are unspoken. It sends a message to already vulnerable young people that who they are is institutionally forbidden, and that they should be ashamed of their identity.’ “

Catholic officials have pushed back on these claims, including Ross Fox who directs the National Catholic Education Commission and Stephen Elder, chief executive of Catholic Education Melbourne, who said schools were already focusing on eliminating bullying and unsafe behaviors.

On the other hand, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher’s election document listed the Safe Schools Program as one of the top four issues about which Catholics should be concerned, two others being religious liberty and marriage. The document says the Program “introduces children and teens to the concept of ‘gender fluidity’ and includes activites such as role-playing being in a sexually active same-sex relationship.”

Intrachurch conflicts were apparent, too, during a panel at the National Catholic Education Commission Conference held in June, reported The Record. Panelists largely opposed a proposed plebiscite on marriage equality, including Bishop Greg O’Kelly of Port Pirie who said the church should not campaign on the issue, but also that same-gender marriages have “submerged” the rights of children. But Carmel Nash, deputy chair of Catholic School Parents Australia, said though the church’s teachings should be respected, “many parents have probably, rightly or wrongly, moved on from the at view” and they should be respected having done so, too.

Canada

Alberta’s Catholic schools have been wracked by LGBT controversy for over a year. The Edmonton Catholic School Board ‘s consideration of a transgender policy led to one meeting become a “shouting match” last fall.  Additionally, the Board approved“just discrimination” in schools as a draft policy last December.

A new independent report questions whether the Board remains viable, noted the CBC. Donald Cummings, a consultant and the report’s author, described the Edmonton Boards governance challenges as “systemic, deep and resistant to change.” He said third-party mediation would be necessary to resolve problems. Alberta’s Education Minister, David Eggen, has intervened and assigned a deputy minister to oversee improvements by and greater accountability for the Board.

Catholic educators worldwide are increasingly being asked to grapple with LGBT inclusion and support, as more students come out and at younger ages, and more faculty and staff enter into same-gender relationships or marriages.

But one Canadian school in Toronto, Loretto College School, revealed a powerful way forward that helps entire communities. Jenna Tenn-Yuk, a spoken word artist, reported on Health and Wellness day at the all-girls high school. During  the day’s assembly, the school’s chaplain and six other staff affirmed LGBT students and championed gay-straight alliances. Tenn-Yuk wrote on her blog:

“Staff were standing in solidarity with LGBTQ+ students at the front of the school. . .I was deeply moved and quite emotional before I had to speak. I kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening right now. How would my life be different is this happened at my Catholic high school?’ . . .

“There was so much light and warmth in the room and it was an honour to be in that space. This is the start of something beautiful and will impact generations of students to come.”

That light and warmth should be what every student in Catholic education experiences, especially those who are marginalized like LGBT students. This post shows that while progress is, in many ways, being made, much work remains.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

LGBTQ Policies Fight in Alberta Unresolved After Deadline Passes

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Education Minister David Eggen holding LGBTQ guidelines released in January that helped inform new policies

As of March 31st ,the 61 schools districts in Canada’s Alberta province submitted draft LGBTQ policies, including all government-funded Catholic schools. For months, the issue of drafting these policies has caused disputes, and even after this latest step there is not yet a visible resolution.

Alberta school districts were required to submit draft policies to the provincial government’s Education Ministry, which will now review them to ensure legal compliance. This ends a process that Minister David Eggen called “a very successful exercise,” but is likely not the end. All 17 Catholic districts submitted policies, though the policies’ contents, as well as some officials’ willingness to participate in the process, have varied.  For example:

  • The Medicine Hat Catholic Board of Education added protections for sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression into existing statements.
  • Multiple districts developed similar policies, which the Edmonton Journal noted, were “using identical phrases, and in some cases, written in the same fonts.” These included the Holy Family Catholic Regional School DivisionGrande Prairie and District Catholic SchoolsElk Island Catholic Schools, and Edmonton Catholic Schools, which had earlier approved a policy  described as “practically meaningless.”
  • St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Schools in Leduc remained silent about gender identity.
  • Fort McMurray Catholic Schools will require transgender students to use only gender neutral restrooms and private locker rooms.
  • Calgary Catholic Schools has yet to release its policy to the public, but Calgary’s Bishop Fred Henry said if the Education Ministry refused to budge, “we’re going to end up in court,” according to a columnist in the 

Eggen differed from Henry’s approach, reaffirming the Education Ministry’s commitment to finding resolutions which protect human rights while respecting “religious sensitivities.” He told the Calgary Herald:

“Transgender students, LGBTQ youth, will have the same rights and freedoms as any other child here in the province of Alberta. . . We’re not out to do anything but protect a very vulnerable group of students.”

Despite his desire for common ground, that has included a meeting with the bishops, Eggen and the Education Ministry can try to motivate districts’ compliance through funding cuts or the dissolution of school boards if necessary. Minister Eggen said all policies should be in place by the coming academic year.

The possibility of sanctions has arisen before. Bishop Henry’s comments about a lawsuit are but the latest incident from Catholic officials who have opposed these policies aimed at protecting LGBTQ students. Henry himself described LGBTQ guidelines released by the Education Ministry in January as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic,” writing a second letter in which he refused to apologize for these comments. Other bishops released their own letters of concern, though with far less hyperbole.

The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s actions around a transgender policy have repeatedly made headlines since last summer. Their meetings erupted into a “shouting match” last fall and the Board approved “just discrimination” of some youth in a draft policy last December.

As this process in Alberta ends one stage and begins another, it is worth noting the role Catholic education has played beyond simply being a battleground. This entire process began after a 7-year-old transgender student in Edmonton Catholic Schools sought restroom use consistent with her gender identity. While ecclesial and education officials’ reactions have been split about responding, it was Catholic education which kickstarted a province-wide conversation about sexuality and gender identity.

That conversation has now advanced, but is not over as it seems likely some Catholic districts’ policies will either not meet the legal requirements or be widely different from optional guidelines released in February. But whatever comes next, a question from a columnist in Metro News should help all involved keep perspective:

“. . . [I]n the battle between civil rights and religious freedoms how many LGBTQ children will be collateral damage?”

Charged rhetoric and confrontation by Catholic officials has not prioritized students’ well-being to this point. Hopefully, Catholic bishops and school board members will come to see that protecting LGBTQ students is a vital part of Catholic education and not at odds with the schools’ missions. Otherwise, the process of developing LGBTQ-specific policies may continue for many months, and that would be a defeat for all.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry