Immaculate Conception Church Rev. Chris VanHaight faced public backlash from Durham City Council member and school alumna Vernetta Alston for canceling a speech at Immaculata Catholic School for black history month.
VanHaight apologized for the disrespect she endured, but stood firmly by his decision to cancel the speech and close the school Friday in light of planned protests that threatened student safety, and his duty to uphold Catholic moral teaching. (RELATED: Covington Bishop Apologizes To School Boys)
“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 who initially had been listed as one of the event speakers,” VanHaight said in a letter to parents. “As pastor, I cannot place our Immaculata students into this contentious environment.”
The priest later clarified to news outlets that his decision was also based on his charge to uphold Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality, which teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman.
“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,” VanHaight wrote in an email to The News & Observer. “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.”
Alston accused the church of barring the students from honoring black history month by canceling her speech in particular and of denigrating LGBT individuals.
— Vernetta Alston (@vernettalstonNC) February 8, 2019
“The Church, by depriving the students at Immaculata of the chance to honor Black history, and in doing so, condemning the lives and rights of the LGTBQ community, is sending a sad, regressive, and life-altering message to our children – that the voices and experiences of those within the Black community can be canceled and that inclusion is not valued by some who are charged with shaping their character,” Alston said in a Thursday letter.
While Alston asserted canceling her speech was somehow an affront to black history, VanHaight argued the reasons for canceling the event were not race-based, but instead were based on student safety concerns and a need to uphold the church’s stance on sexual morality.
The Diocese of Raleigh, however, issued a statement in support of VanHaight’s decision along with the priest’s letter to parents announcing the cancellation. VanHaight also said the school would not have any speaking engagements featuring politicians for the time being.
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