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Gay Issues Spark Debate At Minn. Catholic School

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ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. (AP) — The student newspaper at a Roman Catholic prep school in suburban St. Louis has sparked a debate over free speech by defending gay teenagers and criticizing a DVD by Minnesota’s Catholic bishops that denounced same-sex marriage.

Amid the backlash, the newspaper removed the two student-written editorials from its website over the weekend as well as the online comments about them.

“While lively debate and discussion clearly has its place in a Catholic school, this particular discussion is not appropriate because the level of intensity has created an unsafe environment for students,” Benilde-St. Margaret’s principal Sue Skinner wrote in a letter posted on the website. “As importantly, the articles and ensuing online postings have created confusion about Church teaching.”

The newspaper, Knight Errant, published a story last Thursday about the bishops’ DVD. But the focus of the uproar was the two student-written editorials that accompanied it, and the online comments they inspired.

One editorial challenged the bishops’ arguments against same-sex marriage and called the DVD “unsubstantiated.”

“We did expect a little bit of a pushback from that, which there was. A lot of the comments were ‘This shouldn’t have been published, this is a Catholic school,”‘ senior Bernardo Vigil, who helped write the piece, told Minnesota Public Radio News.

Reaction was even stronger against editor Sean Simonson’s op-ed piece on his life as a gay teenager.

“There’s so many suicides in the news. And I felt very frustrated that my voice couldn’t be heard, and that there were all these things that I see as injustices all the time that I didn’t feel like anyone else was recognizing,” Simonson told MPR.

Simonson wrote, in part:

“You fear looking the wrong way in the locker room and offending someone. Politicians are allowed to debate your right to marry the person you love, or your right to be protected from hate crimes under the law. Your faith preaches your exclusion — or damnation. And no one does anything to stop it.”

Many of the 93 comments praised Simonson for what they said was his courage. A distinct minority didn’t. Some quoted theology. Some attacked Simonson. Some were anonymous.

Skinner called Simonson’s parents a day after the piece ran, and also talked to him. The Knight Errant staff, together with the faculty adviser, ultimately agreed instead to remove the opinion pieces and the comments from the website. It also posted the explanation from the principal.

School president Bob Tift said in a statement Monday that the Catholic Church teaches that “men and women with homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”

The school in St. Louis Park has about 1,200 students from seventh through 12th grade, according to its website.

Dennis McGrath, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said church leaders were not involved in the process but supported the school authorities’ decision.

Jane Kirtley, a professor of law and media ethics at the University of Minnesota, said Benilde-St. Margaret’s was well within its legal rights to curtail student expression, but she said students need a safe place to debate these kinds of issues.

“I think it’s always regrettable when a school administrator decides that the appropriate way to handle controversy is to suppress it,” Kirtley said.

But the deletions didn’t end the debate. In reality, Vigil said, the discussion simply moved.

“As per usual, with things involving high school students, a lot of it’s moved to Facebook,” he said.

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Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News

(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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