The community at all-girls Catholic high school community has begun a conversation about what its Catholic identity means after donors sued the school for offering inclusive teachings on racial justice and LGBTQ allyship.
In 2017, Anthony and Barbara Scarpo pledged $1.35 million to support a scholarship program at the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa Bay, Florida, where their two daughters formerly attended. However, they sued the school this past June on the grounds that the Academy “had strayed from Catholic teaching and was therefore in breach of contract, regarding the education it provided.” They revoked their donation and asked for tuition refunds. Queerty explains the story further:
“The lawsuit, filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, claims the school acted fraudulently by appealing for funds from parents while claiming to adhere to Catholic teachings. It specifically criticizes the school’s ‘zeal to embrace the politically correct “woke” culture currently in vogue… where gender identity, human sexuality, pregnancy termination among other “hot button” issues took center stage.’”
A main driver for the lawsuit was the Academy’s commitment to racial equity education in light of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. An additional section mentions LGBTQ information:
“The lawsuit says, ‘On a blackboard at the entrance to the school where all ages pass, Defendant Academy explains how to be a good ally to LGBTQ+ individuals but utterly fails to put any part of this explanation into perspective with mainstream Catholicism.’”
While the Scarpo’s understanding of Catholic teaching presents one perspective on Catholic identity and education, alumnae of Holy Names and the wider community have a different, more inclusive idea about what Catholic teaching means. Kerri Kelly, along with two other alumnae, wrote an open letter that refers to the school’s practices as “examples of Catholic faith in action.” The Tampa Bay Times reports:
“As of [July 16], the letter had been signed by more than 430 alumni from the Tampa school as well as other academies in Seattle and New York run by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.
“‘We stand behind teachings of diversity, equity, and inclusion,’ the letter says. ‘We believe such teachings are not antithetical to the Catholic faith. On the contrary, we argue that these teachings are essential to development in the Catholic faith. The Catholic faith compels us to seek out practices that support and uplift all of our brothers and sisters.’”
Jennifer Liston Bigelow, a 1990 alumna and former principal of Holy Names’ elementary school, spoke with the Tampa Bay Times, saying:
“Academy of the Holy Names was the first school in Tampa, she said, and has a long history of teaching students to support the marginalized and understand those different from them—something she said falls within Catholic teachings. What made her most proud, she said, was to see some of her former students sign the letter as young adults. . .
“‘This is what the academy is all about—infusing the charism of the Sisters of the Holy Names into the lives of our students so they go out into the world and speak out against injustice,’ Bigelow said.”
Bigelow added, “Quite frankly I was shocked to see within a lawsuit that terminology of ‘being woke,’. . .If [the school is] woke, they’ve been woke since 1881. This is nothing new.”
While it is disheartening to see donors revoke their financial support because of the Academy’s desire to welcome all of its students, the pushback and community activism that spans generations of alumnae shows that the school has vastly succeeded in honoring its Catholic identity by forming young adults to love and serve others. For Catholic high schools, there can be no price tag on empathy, solidarity, and human dignity.
–Barbara Anne Kozee, August 14, 2021