Could Cleveland Catholic school LGBTQ+ policy come to Columbus?


COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A new Catholic Diocese of Cleveland policy banning queer expression and transgender healthcare is concerning LGBTQ+ advocates who fear a similar measure will be implemented in Columbus.

The Cleveland diocese’s new “Sexuality and Gender Identity” measure prohibits staff and students from receiving gender-affirming care, same-sex couples from attending school dances, and LGBTQ+ Pride flags from being displayed on institution property. Implemented Sept. 1, the Cleveland diocese said the policy was created “in response to societal trends and at the request of church and school leadership,” impacting 79 elementary schools and five high schools. 

“The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland has taken existing guidance and practice in matters of sex, sexuality, and gender identity and developed them into a formal policy, rooted in scripture and church teaching, to help ensure that these matters are addressed in a consistent, pastorally sound, and authentically Catholic manner,” the diocese said in a statement.

However, Ben Huelskamp, executive director of LGBTQ+ faith-based nonprofit LoveBoldly, said the guidelines are “profoundly unChristian” and reflect anti-LGBTQ+ measures authorized in Catholic dioceses across the nation, like Massachusetts’ Diocese of Worcester and Nebraska’s Archdiocese of Omaha. Huelskamp noted he is unaware of such a policy within the Catholic Diocese of Columbus but is concerned one might come, as the dioceses of Toledo and Steubenville are home to similar directives.

St. Joseph Cathedral at 212 E. Broad St. in downtown Columbus, the seat of the Diocese of Columbus. (NBC4 Photo/David Rees) 

“I fear that we will see a policy come out of the Diocese of Columbus that will mirror, at least in some respect, what we’re seeing out of the Diocese of Cleveland,” Huelskamp said. “I would not be surprised to see one come out in the next six months, if not sooner.”

At odds with ‘God-given biological sex’

The Cleveland diocese’s guidelines, titled the “Parish & School Policy on Issues of Sexuality and Gender Identity,” states it recognizes “there are and will be persons who experience gender dysphoria and/or gender confusion,” and that such experiences can be complex, emotional and painful. “Led to believe that gender and biological sex are entirely separate,” those persons embrace a view that gender represents one’s true self, “even if inconsistent with our physical sex,” the measure reads.

This framing rebukes the American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy on caring for trans children that independently defines sex and gender identity, which “develops over time, much the same way as a child’s physical body does” and “can be fluid, shifting in different contexts.” Still, the Cleveland diocese states this understanding “erases those intentional embodied distinctions between men and women.”

“As such, this view is contrary to the divinely revealed reality of our true, God-given human nature,” the policy states. “Catholic institutions must accompany people experiencing gender dysphoria and be committed both to providing a loving environment and to upholding the truth of God’s created reality.”

Persons will not be denied admission to a Cleveland diocese institution because they are “experiencing gender dysphoria or confusion or same-sex attraction,” but those individuals who openly express disagreement with church teaching may be subject to restrictions.

To fulfill these principles, the policy outlines the following directives for all diocesan offices, parishes, parish schools, and employees, personnel, volunteers, students and youth participating within the institution:

  • Faculty and staff must notify the parents of a minor “experiencing gender dysphoria or gender confusion.” A parent refusing to use a child’s preferred pronouns “at odds with their child’s God-given biological sex” is “not a compelling reason to not disclose.”
  • Only pronouns that reflect a person’s sex assigned at birth shall be used.
  • All must use the bathrooms corresponding to their sex assigned at birth.
  • Students may only be admitted to single-sex schools or programs consistent with their sex assigned at birth. An exception may be made for “biological females competing on athletic teams designated for biological males.”
  • Same-sex couples may not attend a dance, mixer or similar event, or display same-sex attraction at such events.
  • Dressing inconsistent with one’s sex assigned at birth is prohibited. Regardless of intent, the policy states that act “has the effect of causing confusion or scandal.”
  • LGBTQ+ Pride flags and rainbows are banned, as well as publicly advocating or celebrating sexual orientation or identity in ways “contrary to the Catholic Church’s teaching.”
  • Social transition, surgeries or medical treatments, known as gender-affirming care, is forbidden. This includes, but is not limited to, puberty blockers, hormone and surgical treatments.

“Our maleness or femaleness is pivotal to how one sees himself or herself and lives his or her life,” wrote Bishop Edward Malesic in a letter to the diocese. “Through times of questioning and confusion, we must accompany our brothers and sisters in Christ with compassion, mercy, and dignity so that we might lovingly help them navigate the confusion and arrive at the truth.”

Are Ohio’s other regional dioceses home to anti-LGBTQ+ policies?

The Columbus diocese, in a statement issued on behalf of several schools that were queried by NBC4 over their polices, said the institution’s principals, teachers and staff “walk with students and their parents on the sometimes-difficult journey of growing up” and “offers an outstretched hand to those experiencing same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria.”

As “one Catholic family,” the diocese said it offers several avenues of support, including a local chapter of the national Catholic “Courage” ministry that offers “accompaniment to those who are experiencing same-sex attractions or gender dysphoria” while practicing abstinence.

“This ministry helps those with these experiences to find support in living chaste lives in the midst of their confusing experiences, and to know the love of Jesus for them,” the Columbus diocese said. “All parishes (and thus their schools) have been made aware of the Courage ministry.”

Parents or guardians are involved with discussions on how to be help youth having these experience, the diocese said. These discussions can be offered through pastoral care to help youth gain strength to make “healthy choices with regards to dealing with their desires,” and through referral to local Catholic counselors.

The Diocese of Toledo is home to a publicly available “policy statement on gender-related matters” that requires pronouns and institution records reflect a person’s sex assigned at birth. The measure confirms that uniforms, bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, sponsored activities and athletic teams and extra-curricular activities will all be according to “biological sex.”

“As Catholics, we don’t run or hide from these issues. We don’t pretend that they don’t exist,” said Bishop Daniel Thomas in a video statement. “Instead, we reach out with love and compassion, charity and the truth of the gospel to help out brothers and sisters respond to the call of the reality and beauty of the human body and human sexuality as created by God.”

The Diocese of Steubenville told NBC4 it does have a school policy that deals with gender identity but said it chooses not to make it public. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Diocese of Youngstown did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Serious harm to these LGBTQ+ students’

While the Cleveland diocese’s policy emphasizes “all are welcome” in the church, Huelskamp said the measure is an “all or nothing policy” that lacks accommodations and will continue Christianity’s anti-LGBTQ+ reputation that ostracizes the 5.3 million LGBTQ+ U.S. adults who identify as religious. Equality Ohio, a statewide legislative and legal LGBTQ+ nonprofit, echoed concerns and said it is disheartening for an influential institution as the Cleveland diocese to come out so firmly “against inclusion and basic civil rights.”

“Most concerningly, there are LGBTQ+ students in these schools right now that have just been told by this policy that they aren’t allowed to be themselves,” said Alana Jochum, Equality Ohio executive director. “This policy threatens to cause serious harm to these LGBTQ+ students.”

LGBTQ+ youth who report not hearing their parents use religion to say negative things about being part of the community were at significantly reduced risk for attempting suicide in the past year, data from The Trevor Project shows. The organization also found rates of sharing sexual orientation or gender identity with parents were significantly higher among youth who did not report hearing their parents use religion to say negative things about being LGBTQ+.

An increasing number of youth could be required to follow anti-LGBTQ+ guidelines from the dioceses after an influx of parents applying for Ohio’s private school voucher program, providing students state dollars to offset the cost of attending a nonpublic school of their choice.

“We’re seeing students who are being moved by their parents, or by their own choice, into religiously-funded schools, of which we know largely are Catholic,” Huelskamp said. “More students are going to be impacted, either themselves as folks who are queer or coming to understand their identities as queer, or just as people whose friends may be impacted.”

For students in Columbus, Huelskamp expects a measure similar to the Cleveland diocese’s, citing Bishop Earl Fernandes’ decision to remove the Paulist priests from their position of leadership at St. Thomas More Newman Center on the Ohio State University campus in July 2022.

Members of the Newman congregation said they believe the Paulists were asked to leave due to the Newman Center’s open arms to the LGBTQ+ community. However, Fernandes told NBC4 the accusation is rooted in “rumor and fear.”

“This decision was absolutely not motivated by anti-LGBTQ sentiments, nor was it motivated by political reasons,” the diocese said in a July 2022 statement. “Rather, it reflects Bishop Fernandes’ pastoral priorities of evangelization and promotion of priestly vocations, especially in the Diocese of Columbus.”

View the Cleveland diocese’s full “Parish & School Policy on Issues of Sexuality and Gender Identity” below.

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