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DURHAM, N.C. (ChurchMilitant.com) - After a controversy forced the rescinding of a speaking invitation given to a lesbian city councilwoman, the pastor reversed course and invited her back to the parish.
In February, Immaculata Catholic School's African-American Heritage Committee invited Durham City Council member Vernetta Alston to speak at the school during Black History Month. Alston was chosen because she is an alumnus of Immaculata and the committee felt she is an influential African-American woman.
Alston is also a lesbian in a same-sex "marriage" who openly dissents from the Church's teachings. In her response to the cancellation, she painted the issue as a racial one and said, "Immaculata is a religious institution and I believe strongly in the freedom to believe and worship how one chooses, even if a belief contradicts with something fundamental to my own life."
Out of concern for the students' safety, Fr. Chris VanHaight, the pastor of Immaculata Catholic School and Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, North Carolina, rescinded the invitation and closed the school for the day. He claimed there would be two groups protesting. One of the groups of protestors was reported to be coming in from Washington, D.C.
"As pastor, I cannot place our Immaculata students into this contentious environment," he wrote in a letter to parents. The diocese of Raleigh supported Fr. VanHaight's decision.
The diocese's statement 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."
After learning about the new invitation, Church Militant reached out to Fr. VanHaight to ask how he would handle the scandal of Alston's same-sex "marriage" and if he was planning to review Alston's talk or warn the parishioners that she dissents from the Church's teachings. He responded with, "I will carefully consider what you have written."
The following Sunday, during Mass, Fr. VanHaight spoke to the congregation about the controversy. He praised Alston for her work as an "anti-death penalty activist" and for striving for social justice causes. He did mention the fact that she is a "pro-gay marriage politician" saying, "And that was problematic."
"It was certainly problematic for the parents who emailed me," he said, noting they were wondering if Catholic teachings had been changed or if Immaculata was really a Catholic school.
"In order to be clear about Catholic teachings, even the ones many people disagree with, I decided to ... very reluctantly, to rescind the invitation," Fr. VanHaight said.
Father VanHaight apologized for how the situation was handled and how it got mixed up with the parish's Black History Month celebrations. He also went on to say they would avoid having politicians speak for a while.
"We're going to be very careful about that," he said, adding, "Another group, however, who were hurt by this, and I, really, am so sorry, is our lesbian, gay, Bisexual, transsexual and questioning brothers and sisters — our parishioners."
Father VanHaight then questioned, "Are we welcome here? Is there a place for us? Will we be attacked?" He added, "To my gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, questioning brothers and sisters, not only are you welcome here, you're valued here."
On Feb. 14, and with reporters present, he visited Alston to apologize and extend another invitation.
"Certainly, we foresee her coming to the campus at some point before the end of the school year for sure," Fr. VanHaight told WRAL-TV. He said it wasn't really a change of heart that made him extend another invitation, explaining, "We're looking at a different setting, a different venue ... you know, a different time."
During the city council meeting on Feb. 18, Alston's message to the students was, "I want to applaud them for their commitment to each other and for the lessons they are teaching all of us about resilience, overcoming bigotry and the power we have to create change when we stand up for each other."
Alston added, "I have an amazing wife and daughter ... and we help each other experience happiness."
"We also continue to work toward our full recognition as individuals and as a family, for full and equal rights for LGBT people and for the space for those who need to fight for something else," she said.
Alston told reporters, "I made it clear I still want to talk to students."
Church Militant reached out to the diocese of Raleigh but none of our communications were answered.