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Omaha archdiocese gender-identity policy reveals rift among parents, advocates

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The new gender-identity policies for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Omaha are being met by resistance in some schools, where they’re being criticized as “anti-Catholic” and “closed-minded.”

But some Nebraskans are cheering the archdiocese for telling its 70 schools to conform to church teaching on gender identity.

The new policies, which were provided to schools in recent weeks, will take effect Jan. 1.

The policies cover the use of pronouns, dress codes and participation in sports, saying those should be determined by biological sex at birth. They also ban “gender-affirming psychotherapy,” use of hormone medications or surgery that runs counter to Catholic tenets on human sexuality.

The archdiocese schools enroll about 19,000 students.

Endorsed by Archbishop George Lucas, the policies address how schools should respond to children experiencing gender dysphoria.

Candice Towey, who serves on the school board of St. Cecilia Cathedral Catholic School in Omaha, said the policies are “a solution looking for a problem.”

Towey said she was born and raised Catholic and has a third grader in the school.

“It seems very anti-Catholic, in my opinion, to say, ‘Oh, you people are OK, but you are not OK, and we don’t want anything to do with you,’ “ Towey said.

She said she’s concerned about the portion of the policy that requires kids to dress in a manner consistent with their biological sex. She said that’s a “slippery slope.”

“My daughter happens to like having short hair,” she said. “How long before they say, ‘Well, your daughter is not feminine enough and she needs to wear her hair longer’?”

Towey said she’s also concerned about the policies governing the activities of students and volunteers away from school.

The policy on students says that their social media activity and other conduct “shall be respectful of others and not promote, advocate, or endorse a view or conduct contrary to the Catholic Church’s teachings, including on human sexuality.”

The policy covering employees and volunteers says they shall “not publicly promote, endorse, or condone gender ideology, transgenderism, or any other belief that is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

“If I as a parent go to the gay pride parade — which I did, in support, because that’s just a human thing to do — and I post about that, then I can be barred from volunteering at the school, from volunteering in the parish, and potentially my children banned from things,” she said.

She said she doesn’t know how it would play out if the principal and school board refused to adopt the policies and the archdiocese holds firm on them.

“Do we lose funding from the archdiocese? Do we lose our principal? We don’t know those answers.”

Jesse Scott, a father of two students at Saint Robert Bellarmine Catholic School in Omaha, said he thinks the policy change is a no-brainer.

“Myself and most Robert parents I know are pretty pro-LGBTQ rights,” Scott said. “We are not anti any of that, but we are also Catholic and we understand the school has rules that go along with that.”

Scott said he feels the new policy has painted the Catholic church in a bad light. While his school has LGBTQ students, it’s a well-known fact that the Catholic faith doesn’t accept homosexuality or support gender identity, he said.

“We don’t hate anyone, but I am not going to sit here and argue with the church’s decisions,” Scott said. “If parents disagree, they can withdraw their child from school.”

Jeremy Ekeler, associate director of education policy for the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said the policies communicate “Catholic teaching regarding the sanctity of the body, marriage, and sexuality.

“Despite the cultural forces claiming that sex is one’s identity and gender is self-defined, Catholic schools maintain the truth of self-dignity and the value of self-respect as children of God,” Ekeler said.

Nate Grasz, policy director for the Nebraska Family Alliance, said the policies will serve students and families “because they are based in truth, science, and compassion.”

More than ever, he said, parents and families are seeking out faith-based schools that reflect their values and are “free from graphic sexual curriculum and politicized ideas about gender identity.”

Abbi Swatsworth, executive director of the LGBTQ+ advocacy group OutNebraska, said in a statement that every student deserves to feel safe and affirmed at school regardless of their religious background.

“It is heartbreaking when young people reach out to us because their families and schools do not affirm who they are,” she said. “It is even more heartbreaking to learn about young people who end their lives.”

She said her group will continue to advocate for spaces “where young LGBTQ+ people can grow to their full potential.”

Swatsworth added that family affirmation is one of the most important factors in protecting the mental health of LGBTQ youth.

She said a national survey by The Trevor Project found that LGBTQ youth who felt high social support from their family reported attempting suicide at less than half the rate of those who felt low or moderate social support.

Jessi Hitchins, director of the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said affirming a student’s gender identity can drastically change their future.

“Kids who don’t have their gender identity affirmed have a higher likelihood of dying by suicide, higher rate of not completing their high school degree and don’t have a good experience in school,” Hitchins said. “Why would you want to go to college when you’ve only experienced spaces that were homophobic or transphobic?”

The policy change will especially be hard for transgender or non-binary students who are forced to go to a Catholic school, Hitchins said.

“We know if students feel affirmed, they don’t feel like the world hates them for who they are,” Hitchins said. “But if they can’t be who they are, the message is ‘I don’t deserve to be here.’ That is an incredible message that is being told to our youth.”

Katie Schill has two children in St. Cecilia’s school. She said she was baptized Catholic but is not a practicing Catholic.

She said the policies “fly in the face of the inclusive atmosphere that our grade school, in particular, has really worked hard to build.”

“It shows that we are closed-minded, and that’s not who my school is,” she said.

She said opponents are going to be looking for ways to push back against the policies. They’ve been communicating with one another, and they reached out to their principal and the superintendent of the archdiocesan schools, she said.

“Honestly, I don’t know that any of us expect it to change,” she said. “It’s kind of David versus Goliath. We are David, except I think Goliath is gonna win this time. But at the very least we can make it known we disagree.”

World-Herald staff writer Lauren Wagner contributed to this report.

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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