Iowa Catholic School Will Not Recognize Student for LGBT Scholarship

May 3, 2016
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Liam Jameson

A Catholic high school in Iowa which previously fired a gay teacher is now refusing honors to a graduating senior who is also gay.

Officials at Dowling Catholic High School, West Des Moines, have said senior Liam Jameson may not receive an LGBT scholarship from the Eychaner Foundation during the school’s awards ceremony this Thursday. Jameson is asking school officials to reverse their decision, so that he can be recognized equally for his accomplishments, reported OutSports. A Change.org petition, which you can sign here, has more than 1,000 signatures already. The student wrote an open letter explaining his appeal, stating in part:

“I’ve worked hard to prevent suicides, and having this scholarship presented allows other students to learn that LGBTQ students are valued in society, not shunned. That’s why the Committee presents the scholarships at Senior Awards Programs, to try and help save other young lives who feel isolated and worthless, like I once did. . .Bishop Pates, President Deegan, Principal Meendering, please choose life and demonstrate that all lives are worthy of ‘wholeness and dignity’. Doing so shows the entire Dowling Catholic student body that they are truly valued and loved regardless of who they are.”

The Eychaner Foundation describes itself as a “non-profit organization committed to promoting tolerance and non-discrimination,” and notes that it is “dedicated to anti-bullying.” Jameson was awarded the $40,000 Matthew Shepard Scholarship, named after hate crime victim whose 1998 murder in Wyoming sparked a national call to end violence against LGBT people.  The scholarship recognizes Jameson’s leadership as a gay student at Dowling Catholic where he helped organize a 250-student walk-out last year protesting the firing of gay teacher Tyler McCubbin. He also led efforts to found an LGBT club, called One Dowling Family, which provides a safe space at the school. Of this latter work, Jameson shared:

“I wanted to leave Dowling a better place, one worthy enough to educate all the brave souls who have had lives far better and far worse than mine. A space for all. A space that valued the few just as much as it valued the many. That space is now called One Dowling Family, formerly One Human Family. . .I can leave Dowling knowing that I made it a better place, one that provides students a place where they can be free.”

Dowling Catholic administrators released a brief statement yesterday, stating that scholarship organizations are not allowed to present awards during the ceremony, and thus Jameson would be honored in a manner consistent with his peers. The statement reads:

“At Dowling Catholic High School we are proud of all of our senior students who have received awards and scholarships to further their education. All scholarship recipients are honored during the Scholastic Award Assembly. Each senior selects up to two scholarships to be read out loud when a slide that includes their name and picture comes up on the screen. We do not allow organizations who are awarding the scholarship to attend and individually present the scholarship to the student. This policy was shared in writing with the Eychaner Foundation regarding the Matthew Shepard Award. We are pleased one of our students received the Matthew Shepard Award and he will be honored in the same manner as his classmates.”

The Eychaner Foundation refuted this claim with their own statement from Rich Eychaner, which said Dowling Catholic “misrepresents the efforts the efforts the school has gone to in dishonoring Iowa’s Matthew Shepard Scholarship.” The statement continued, noting the scholarship had been presented at Dowling Catholic in 2014 without problem:

“Since then, Dowling constructed and then revised a policy to limit scholarships presented to their students. Dowling further tightened their policy to specifically target the Matthew Shepard Scholarship by writing in ‘rules’ that the school could deny the student’s choice of scholarships that were publicly read under criteria that targeted our scholarship. . .

“After Principal Meendering became aware that Liam intended to apply for Iowa’s Matthew Shepard Scholarship Program the policy was revised to state. . .’Students may choose to accept any award; however Dowling Catholic High School reserves the right to not acknowledge any award.’ (emphasis added)”

Other Iowa Catholic schools have welcomed the Foundation, though not without some controversies. In 2012, a student at Prince of Peace Catholic High School was also the recipient of the Matthew Shepard scholarship from the Eychaner Foundation.  Bishop Martin Amos of the Diocese of Davenport originally denied permission for the scholarship to be announced at graduation, but he reversed the decision and allowed the presentation to go forward. The bishop also congratulated the student, and re-affirmed the diocese’s support of anti-bullying and anti-discrimination principles.

In a related note, there are questions about the safety of One Dowling Family as a space inclusive of all students. Fr. Zach Kautzky, the school’s chaplain whose oversight of the safe space group had been mandated by the school, tweeted a link a news story which denigrates transgender identities. Though students have requested Kautzky be replaced, Principal Matt Meendering “downplayed the group’s LGBT focus” and said the matter was being discussed, wrote a columnist for the Des Moines Register.

It is inexplicable why Dowling Catholic administrators will not allow a graduating gay student to be honored alongside his peers, and why rules have been repeatedly revised. Jameson has contributed greatly to the school community, testifying to the power of being one’s authentic self, and to helping his peers do likewise. He should be celebrated not only for receiving this scholarship, but for modeling the type of student that Catholic education seeks to form when it is at its best. School officials will hopefully find a wisdom and courage similar to their student’s and reverse their discriminatory decision. Regardless, Jameson will surely excel at Iowa State next year and then wherever life takes him.  Congratulations, Liam!

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Yet Another Commencement Controversy at a Catholic School

May 9, 2012

“Commencement time” is becoming “controversy time” when it comes to LGBT issues and Catholic schools.   Already this spring, we’ve witnessed three stories where LGBT issues have caused uproars in various Catholic educational institutions in the U.S. (for links to Bondings2.0posts about these previous stories, see the end of this posting).  This fourth one seems the most frustrating, and I explain the reasons why after reviewing the details of the case.

The news this week is that the bishop of Davenport, Iowa, is not allowing a scholarship to be presented to a gay student at a Catholic high school in Clinton, Iowa, because the award comes from a foundation which supports LGBT rights.

According to an Associated Press story printed on theWashington Post website:

Keaton Fuller

Bishop Martin Amos in Davenport said the Eychaner Foundation would not be allowed to present the Matthew Shepard Scholarship to Keaton Fuller during the May 20 ceremony at Prince of Peace Catholic School in Clinton, saying the group’s support for gay rights conflicts with church doctrine.

Fuller’s response was quoted in a QuadCities Times article about the decision:

 “ ‘I have never felt as invalidated and unaccepted as I have upon hearing the news that the scholarship that I have worked so hard for not just in the application process, but also in my deportment and actions over the years, would not be recognized in the way that it should at the graduation ceremony,’ Keaton said. ‘It is difficult to understand how after I have spent 13 years at this school and worked hard during all of them, I would be made to feel that my accomplishments are less than everybody else’s. This whole ordeal has been incredibly hurtful, and I am even sadder that this will be one of my last experiences to remember my high school years by.’

“Keaton wrote that this is ‘a teachable moment for Prince of Peace, to stand up against rejecting and invalidating the accomplishments of any student.’ ”

The diocese’s statement about the bishop’s decision cited a diocesan policy about speakers at Catholic institutions:

“We cannot allow any one or any organization which promotes a position that is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church to present at a diocesan institution.”

As was the case in another recent graduation controversy, the bishop’s decision was not supported by local school officials, according to the Associated Press story:

“School Board President Edward O’Neill said he was disappointed by the bishop’s decision. He said Fuller was a talented student who was accepted by his peers after coming out years ago. He said Fuller had taken his boyfriend to prom over the weekend and other school dances without controversy.

“O’Neill said board members were briefed on the scholarship last month, and they were aware a foundation representative planned to present the scholarship. No one raised an objection until the bishop got involved, he said.

“ ‘We preach tolerance and acceptance but then we turn around and we don’t practice what we preach,’ he said. ‘If the bishop says we’re not going to do it, I can voice my objection to it, but there’s not a whole lot I can do.’ ”

The QuadCity Times article offers further disagreement from O’Neill:

“O’Neill said he was ‘disappointed and confused’ by the diocese’s decision, especially because the school already had given assurance that a representative of the foundation would be allowed to present the scholarship.

“ ‘If you say you’re going to do something, you do it,’ O’Neill said. ‘I guess I don’t understand what the big deal is about somebody from the foundation coming to present the award.’

“O’Neill said it is common practice at the school for representatives of organizations awarding scholarships to make the presentations to the winning students.

“ ‘How this became a contentious situation I don’t know,’ he said.”

Indeed, the same story says that school officials encouraged and supported Fuller to apply for the scholarship:

“He learned about the scholarship program and was encouraged to apply by Prince of Peace, he said in the release. The school also issued a signed statement that a committee member would be allowed to present the award to Keaton at the ceremony if he were selected for the scholarship, the release states.”

What’s particularly frustrating about this case is that the Eychaner Foundation and the diocese do have common ground in their anti-bullying work.   The Associated Press article states:

“Eychaner issued a statement saying he was shocked that the bishop believes the foundation’s work clashes with church teachings, noting it promotes tolerance and fights bullying.”

The diocese’s statement ends:

“While the diocese supports anti-bullying programs promoted by the Eychaner Foundation, the Foundation’s advocacy for same-sex marriage is contrary to Catholic teaching.”

The frustration comes because the bishop has turned an opportunity to promote the church’s teaching against intolerance into a half-hearted attempt to make a statement about the church’s teaching on sexual ethics.  “Half-hearted” because the scholarship will still be allowed to be presented at the graduation, just not by a representative from the Eychaner Foundation.

Any subtle message about sexual ethics that the diocese was trying to make has already been drowned out by the louder message that it is sending that discrimination is not an important value to the Catholic hierarchy.

The larger issue, though, is how Catholic institutions are going to relate to other institutions in the world.  If Catholics were to follow the logic of this bishop’s decision, they would only ever associate with individuals or groups with whom they have total and complete agreement.  That is a recipe for institutional disaster.   Catholics would do well to follow the example of Jesus who was not afraid to associate with people with whom he had disagreements.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Previous Bondings 2.0 stories about Catholic commencement controversies:

April 30, 2012: At Catholic Colleges’ Commencements: Tutu, Yes; Kennedy, No

April 29, 2012:  “Whodunit” Surrounds Decision to Disinvite Gay Alum from Commencement

April 1, 2012:  The Ups and Downs of LGBT Issues on Catholic College Campuses


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