Education

'This is discrimination.' Hilton Head Catholic school rejected same-sex couple's kids

St. Francis by the Sea Catholic Church, located at 45 Beach City Road on Hilton Head Island, as photographed May 22, 2018.
St. Francis by the Sea Catholic Church, located at 45 Beach City Road on Hilton Head Island, as photographed May 22, 2018.

A Hilton Head Island Catholic priest denied the children of a married, same-sex couple acceptance to a Catholic school for the coming school year, sparking outrage among some parishioners and feelings of discrimination from the mothers.

The Hilton Head mothers, who have been legally married since 2009, applied to St. Francis Catholic School earlier this spring in hopes that their two children would attend in the 2018-19 school year.

The couple requested that neither they nor their children be named in this story out of fear of harassment.

One of the mothers, who spoke with the school's pastor over the phone after receiving a rejection via email, said the priest told her: “Your children have been denied because you’re homosexual. If we admit your children, it will send a bad message to the other families."

St. Francis by the Sea Catholic Church's pastor, the Rev. Mike Oenbrink, said Friday that he rejected the children's application because of the same-sex marriage, not the mothers' sexual orientation.

In a prepared statement, Oenbrink wrote: “We reaffirm the dignity of all human beings, regardless of their beliefs. At the same time, our Catholic schools exist not only to promote academic excellence, but also to build a community of faith and prayer. Based on Biblical and traditional teachings, we believe that God wills marriage to be a vowed, loving union between a man and a woman. We celebrate such a union as a Sacrament and, after prayerful deliberation, I reserve the right to admit to our parish school families which actively support that belief.”

A prepared statement from the Diocese of Charleston said this type of decision is left to the local pastor.

Maria Aselage, director of media relations for the diocese, wrote in an email: “The Catholic Diocese of Charleston does not currently have a diocesan-wide policy in place when same sex couples wish to enroll their child in our schools … Unless there should be a change in the diocesan approach, the decision of enrolling a child will remain up to the pastors of parish schools.”

The Charleston diocese oversees 33 Catholic schools in South Carolina, according to its website. Three of those schools are located in Beaufort County: St. Francis on Hilton Head, St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton and St. Peter's in Beaufort. Some of these students feed into John Paul II Catholic School, a middle and high school located in Okatie.

For centuries, the Catholic church has opposed homosexuality.

But Pope Francis’ reported comments earlier this month — when he told a gay man, “God made you this way and loves you this way, and the pope loves you this way” — has the couple and others in the church community questioning the tolerance level of this particular priest, and why such a decision is left to one individual.

"It all comes down to who’s running that specific church," said Terri Long, a friend of the couple who said she spoke with Oenbrink about his decision. "It all falls on Father Mike."

'Why punish my children for my choices?'

Located on the north end of the island, Saint Francis is a small school serving fewer than 200 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Per-student tuition costs $4,450 for parishioners and $6,995 for nonparishioners.

“Our families become part of a close-knit community — one in which parents are actively involved with the school,” according to the school’s website. “About 90 percent of our students are Catholic.”

The mothers acknowledge they are not Catholic, but were seeking an alternative to the school their children currently attend. Some of their friends, whose children attend St. Francis, encouraged the couple to apply.

In early March, the couple toured the school, asking principal Brian Pope whether their marriage would be an issue. They said he responded it would not be a problem.

Pope declined to be interviewed, referring all questions to the diocese.

The mothers walked away from their tour impressed by the school’s “phenomenal education.”

They said both children later "shadowed" at the school, an offer they understood to be available only to students the school intended to accept. They also said they submitted all application requirements, including immunization records, birth certificates and transcripts.

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St. Francis Catholic School, located on Hilton Head Island's north end, as photographed on Tuesday, May 22, 2018.

But then an email hit the couple’s inbox.

“Our Pastor … has informed me that we will not be able to accept (the children) at St. Francis Catholic School for 2018-2019 school year,” Pope wrote in a March 14 email that did not specify the reason for the admission decision.

One of the mothers assumed classes were full and that her children had been placed on a waitlist. The average class size, according to the school's website, is 18 students.

She asked the principal to call her, and he wrote in a subsequent email, “I apologize for the disappointment that this news brings. Like I said, the decision has come from Father Mike and he would be the one to speak with.”

She phoned Oenbrink, who, according to her account, told her that the reason for her children's rejection was her sexual orientation.

As a counterargument for Oenbrink, she offered the example of divorce — another action the Catholic church has taken a strong stance against. She said the priest confirmed that children of divorced parents attend the school.

“My children are being banned because of who I am,” she said. “This is discrimination. Why punish my children for my choices?”

Similar situations

The Hilton Head mothers aren’t the first to face what they call discrimination from the Catholic church for getting married.

In 2010, a small Catholic elementary school in Massachusetts withdrew its acceptance of an 8-year-old boy when the pastor and school principal learned that the boy was the child of a lesbian couple. The Archdiocese of Boston supported the school’s decision and helped place the boy in a different Catholic school.

Under fire for the widely publicized incident, the archdiocese announced a new policy for Catholic school admissions in 2011 that did not “discriminate against or exclude any categories of students,” according to The Boston Globe. The new policy also stipulated that parents “must accept and understand that the teachings of the Catholic Church are an essential and required part of the curriculum.’’

A similar situation occurred in Boulder in 2010 when a preschool student was rejected from re-enrolling in a Catholic school for the following year because the parents were two women, according to The Denver Post.

The Charleston diocese said in its prepared statement that the issue has come up in the past, but did not provide any details: “It has generally been explained to same-sex parents that the teachings of the Catholic faith and Catholic beliefs are critical components of the curriculum in our schools, and that it will be contradictory to what the child is, perhaps, learning or seeing at home."

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St. Francis by the Sea Catholic Church, located at 45 Beach City Road on Hilton Head Island, as photographed May 22, 2018. Kelly Meyerhofer kmeyerhofer@islandpacket.com

Nationally, about two-thirds of Catholics support legal marriage for same-sex couples, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll.

Long, a friend of the couple, and St. Francis parishioner Chris Feltner are among that majority. And both said they spoke with Oenbrink about his admissions decision in the days after the couple learned of the rejection.

Long, a Bluffton resident who is not a St. Francis parishioner but attends its annual fundraisers, said she spoke to Oenbrink at the school’s gala March 17. He told her that his decision was based on both the mothers' marriage and their sexual orientation. She responded that he was doing a “real disservice” to the children.

Feltner — a father to one child currently attending St. Francis and another who graduated from the school — praises the school's staff and educational environment. But he questions the diocese's policy in leaving the decision entirely up to an individual pastor.

Oenbrink confirmed to Feltner during an hourlong conversation that the reason for his rejection stemmed from the mothers' marriage, according to Feltner.

Feltner said he has great respect for Oenbrink as a priest, but disagrees with him in this particular circumstance.

“The pope’s own words preach of inclusivity,” Feltner said. “That’s what society needs more of. The more barriers we put up between people, the more division we have.”

Republican lawmakers in South Carolina introduced a bill on Feb. 15, 2018 dubbed "The Marriage and Constitution Restoration Act" in order to identify same-sex marriage as "parody marriage."

Kelly Meyerhofer: 843-706-8136, @KellyMeyerhofer
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