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Catholic Diocese of Cleveland issues official policy barring LGBTQ+ expression

A cross adorns the top of Akron's St. Vincent de Paul Parish, which is part of the the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
A cross adorns the top of Akron's St. Vincent de Paul Parish, which is part of the the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.

The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland this month announced a new formal policy on LGBTQ+ expression at parishes and schools. The policy bars the display of pride flags and rainbows and prohibits same-sex couples from attending school dances.

The diocese, in a statement, said the policy formalizes “existing guidance and practice” and is in response to “societal trends” at the request of church and school leaders.

The new policy will affect 84 diocesan-run and parish schools throughout Northeast Ohio.

Seventy nine elementary schools and five high schools are subject to the policy.

“Our bodies, created male and female, are part of God's intentional design in creation and are, therefore, imbued with meaning and purpose,” the diocese wrote in a letter to schools and parishes sent in late August. “As stewards of these gifts, we are called to accept, love, and care for our bodies as they were created.”

The policy sets out the following guidelines for staff, students, volunteers and anyone participating in any faith-related activities:

  • Staff are required to notify parents if minors are experiencing “gender dysphoria” (a conflict between sex assigned at birth and gender with which one identifies).
  • Institutions will not permit students or others to use preferred pronouns that do not reflect their sex assigned at birth.
  • No dressing in a manner “inconsistent” with one’s gender assigned at birth, or acting in a manner that has the effect of “causing confusion or scandal regarding” one’s sex or gender.
  • No advocacy or celebration of LGBTQ+ sexual orientation or identity, including the display of pride flags.
  • No same-sex couples at parish or school dances.
  • Gender transitions are prohibited.
  • Single-gender schools and programs will only accept people based on their sex assigned at birth, although "a possible exception to this is the allowance of biological females competing on athletic teams designated for biological males when deemed appropriate," the policy reads.

The diocese, in the policy, stated that there are “intentional, embodied distinctions between men and women.” It said people experiencing gender dysphoria or “gender confusion” should be accepted into the church and not discriminated against.
“However, those persons who choose to openly express disagreement with Church teaching on matters of sex, sexuality, and/or gender in an inappropriate or scandalous way, or who act in ways contrary to the teachings of the Church, may be subject to restrictions on his or her participation in the life of the institution or, in appropriate cases, to disciplinary action, both for that person's own good and/or the good of others,” the policy reads.

Benjamin Huelskamp, executive director of LOVEBoldly, a nonprofit organization devoted to creating spaces where LGBTQ+ people can “flourish” in Christianity, said he was not surprised by the order.

“Speaking from my own story, I attended Catholic school myself from kindergarten through 12th grade, and it was not an environment in which I ever felt like I could come out or be myself,” he said. “And I don't think that has really changed in the almost 20 years since I graduated high school.”

Still, the order appears to be unusual, Huelskamp said, considering that bishops often allow schools within their diocese to determine how to handle these issues on their own terms.

“And it really kind of strikes in the face of the fact that, despite what the Catholic Church may hold as an institutional organization, the majority of American Catholics are actually supportive of the LGBTQ community,” he said.

Huelskamp explained there are many LGBTQ+ students who attend Catholic schools. There are an estimated 1.3 million Roman Catholic LGBT adults in the U.S., according to a study by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law.

“It raises real concerns for me, for students who need to come out, who need those spaces and what that's going to do for their mental health, what that's going to do for just the acceptance of who they are,” he said. “And that, unfortunately, leads to all types of problems for these students, including higher incidences of suicide attempts, suicide ideation and actual suicide that we see among queer youth.”

The LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, in a statement, said it is “gravely disappointed in this continued harmful rhetoric towards the LGBTQ+ community,” which it said is in contrast to more accepting attitudes displayed by Pope Francis recently.

“Again we find here the dangerous practice of outing students for their expression of self, subjecting youth to potential harmful situations,” the center wrote. “The repressive culture and othering that will be fostered further by the hurtful policies documented in this statement is a massive setback in creating an affirming community here in Northeast Ohio, where all should be welcome to live and thrive as their authentic selves.”

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb condemned the policy in a statement posted to the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. "As a Christian, the new Catholic Diocese of Cleveland anti-LGBTQ+ policy is a shocking betrayal of the Church teachings that have shaped who I am today." In the post, the mayor went on to say that "the new policy forces LGBTQ+ kids to hide their authentic selves and attend school in fear of persecution of who they are."

Huelskamp noted that policies like this can have “chilling effects” on other schools throughout Ohio. Nancy Fishburn, spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, said it only affects private diocesan-run schools.

Increasingly, though, tuition at those schools can come from public dollars. A number of diocesan-run schools throughout Northeast Ohio are registered to allow parents to use taxpayer-funded school vouchers to pay for their children’s tuition, which were expanded in the state’s new budget.

Fishburn said the policy is not binding on schools founded by specific orders, like St. Ignatius High School, a Jesuit school, or St. Edward High School, founded in the Holy Cross tradition.

“Schools that are independent or governed by religious orders are not subject to this policy,” she said. “As Catholic institutions, they are responsible for developing policies and practices for the operation of their schools that reflect and promote the Catholic faith and Catholic teaching.”

Updated: September 12, 2023 at 9:21 AM EDT
This story has been updated to include comments from Mayor Justin Bibb.
Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.