Classes at Immaculata Catholic School are canceled Friday after officials heard “a number of groups” planned to protest the school’s inviting a Durham City Council member to speak at a Black History Month event.
The council member, Vernetta Alston, is a school alumna and one of six openly LGBTQ candidates elected to office in North Carolina in 2017. Durham County District Court Judge Shamieka Rhinehart and City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson were also scheduled to speak at the school to celebrate Black History Month, a city official said.
“We were all scheduled to speak at different times this month,” Johnson wrote in a text. “They told me that they’ve canceled the whole Black History Month program.”
In a letter to Immaculata parents, Father Christopher VanHaight said he had to put children’s safety first.
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“Regrettably, I understand from a variety of sources 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 wrote in the letter
“As pastor I cannot place our Immaculata students into this contentious environment,” he wrote.
The letter does not say what the groups objected to, and VanHaight referred questions to a Diocese of Raleigh spokesman who did not return a call from The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun.
But in her own letter Thursday night, Alston said she was “deeply disappointed.”
“Immaculata is a religious institution and I believe strongly in the freedom to believe and worship how one chooses, even if a belief conflicts with something fundamental to my own life,” she wrote.
“That said,” she continued, “adherence to that basic principle means that I can freely say that 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. I reject that message.”
Parent Danielle Sutton, chair of the school’s African-American Heritage Committee, also criticized the church’s decision.
The committee invited Alston to speak at a weekly Friday morning prayer that takes 35 to 40 minutes. The theme was influential African-American women.
“We reached out to Ms. Alston because she is that,” Sutton said Thursday night.
“This was not a school decision,” she added. “There was no conversation between church officials and the heritage committee. It’s very disheartening.”
The committee members are hoping the church will meet with them, Sutton said. “We want the students to have positive images of African-American women in the same way they have images of other women,” she said.
Alston is an attorney who attended N.C. State University for undergraduate school and received her law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.
She worked for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation for more than five years, where she served as co-counsel for Henry McCollum, who was exonerated after spending 30 years in prison, The Herald-Sun has reported.
Alston is married to a woman and they have a young child, The Herald-Sun has reported.
In addition to the school, the neighboring Immaculate Conception Church will be closed Friday, according to an email to parents.
VanHaight closed his letter to parents with a prayer for healing.
“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,” he wrote.
“I express my gratitude for your understanding and patience as we close this trying week,” he wrote. “I also ask you to join with me in praying for faithfulness, strength and healing within and outside of our parish community and city.”