Priest re-invites LGBTQ City Council member to speak to Catholic students in Durham

Vernetta Alston
Vernetta Alston

The priest who rescinded an invitation to an LGBTQ Durham City Council member to speak to Immaculata Catholic School students during Black History Month has changed his mind and invited her to speak sometime later this school year.

Council member Vernetta Alston said the Rev. Christopher VanHaight, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which governs the school, asked her to come speak another time. They met on Thursday.

“I made it clear I still want to talk to students,” Alston said Friday. “We’re working out the details.”

She said that VanHaight apologized for how he handled the situation and knew she was willing to come back.

Efforts to reach VanHaight for comment were unsuccessful.

Alston, an attorney who has worked to exonerate people wrongly imprisoned for murder, was invited by the school’s African American Heritage Committee. The theme of the school’s Black History Month celebration is “Influential African American Women.” Alston is an Immaculata alumna and was elected to the City Council in 2017. She and her wife, Courtney, have a daughter.

VanHaight canceled school on Feb. 8, and rescinded her invitation, along with an invitation to Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, who is also African American and LGBTQ, to speak during Black History Month.

Earlier this week, VanHaight said he “made the decision to rescind the invitation to Ms. Alston after receiving messages from some parents concerned that having a pro-gay marriage politician speak at the school was calling into question the school’s commitment to upholding Catholic moral teaching.” He also said the school needed a break from politicians.

On Friday, Johnson said she has not been re-invited, and whether or not she accepts an invitation depends on how the situation with Alston is handled by the church.

“Right now I don’t feel comfortable,” Johnson said.

Last week, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh released a statement saying it supported VanHaight’s decision.

Alston responded with a public letter on Feb. 7.

“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.”

Alston has received many emails from Immaculata parents and alumni supporting her, as well as invitations to speak at other schools. The parent committee who first invited her still wants her to come back, too.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.