Update 3/9/16: Mount Saint Charles Academy has removed its ban on transgender students. See the update at the end of this story for more information.
Catholic Rhode Island private school Mount Saint Charles Academy is open to everyone—so long as they’re not transgender.
The latest edition of the Woonsocket school’s parent-student handbook states flatly and without further explanation: “Mount Saint Charles Academy is unable to make accommodations for transgender students. Therefore, MSC does not accept transgender students nor is MSC able to continue to enroll students who identify as transgender.”
There are no stated exclusions based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or any other factor—only transgender status.
The change was implemented in October 2015 but concerned alumni only noticed it recently, GoLocalProv reported. David Coletta, who graduated from MSC in 2009, created a Change.org petition to ask the school to “leave the hateful rhetoric in the past [and] accept trans students.”
Coletta told The Daily Beast that the MSC he knew would never ban transgender students and that the current policy “goes against their own teachings.”
“It’s completely different than how they teach their students to behave,” he said. “We were always taught there to be very accepting and loving of others.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, the school said that the policy was “not intended to be discriminatory toward transgendered [sic] students” and that it is not the school’s “intent or desire to exclude transgender students.”
MSC did not respond to questions about how it would determine whether or not a prospective student is transgender. Also unknown is whether or not the school has expelled any transgender students under this policy.
“The policy was put in place for the simple reason that Mount Saint Charles feels that its facilities do not presently provide the school with the ability to accommodate transgender students,” the school’s statement read.
But Coletta is certain that transgender students have attended MSC in the past, including one student who graduated a few years before he did. That student, he said, never experienced any issues with bathrooms or locker rooms while at MSC.
“For them to say they can’t accommodate these students is just, in my opinion, a cheap copout because they’ve clearly shown in the past that they can,” he told The Daily Beast.
The targeted nature of the policy appears to have caught many other former students by surprise. At press time, the petition had received over 600 signatures.
“I am proud of how many fellow alumni are standing up for what they believe in, speaking up for love and inclusion, and rejecting discrimination,” added another. “That is the Mount community I am proud of—not one of judgment and disgrace.”
Coletta suspects that the recent panic about transgender people using facilities consistent with their gender may have inspired the school’s sudden action.In October 2015, when the new MSC policy was reportedly introduced, Houston was in the center of a national debate over an LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance that would protect transgender people’s access to public accommodations. And this past week, the South Dakota House of Representatives upheld the governor’s veto on a bill that would have prohibited transgender students from using restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.
MSC’s statement made no reference to this recent debate, comparing the supposed inadequacy of its facilities for transgender students to the rejection of applicants who are not “academically qualified.”
“Although the school had not been approached with any requests to admit transgender students, Mount Saint Charles Academy’s administration has been exploring ways in which it might provide accommodations for transgender students and fulfill its mission,” the statement concluded.
As a private religious institution, MSC is legally permitted to make this exclusion. Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), explained to GoLocalProv that the school does receive some state aid, but not enough to build a constitutional case against them.
“There are, of course, separate statutes that ban discrimination in both public and private institutions, but many of those statutes have exemptions for religious institutions,” Brown said.
But for Coletta, it’s not a matter of law but one of principle.
“That’s why I think this petition is so important,” he said. “It’s a type of situation where we need people, especially those within the MSC community, to speak up and say they do not stand for this—to try and get them to see the wrong in their ways through their own family.”
Within the Catholic Church, transgender identity is particularly controversial. Pope Francis famously compared the “sin” of “gender theory” to the nuclear arms race but he also met privately with a transgender man, which gave some degree of hope to LGBT Catholics.
As the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) notes, the Catholic Church has no official transgender policy, but in September of last year, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith barred a transgender Catholic man from becoming a godfather, saying that he was not “leading a life conformed to the faith.”
In a 2013 Pew survey, 79 percent of LGBT adults described the Catholic Church as “unfriendly.”
But there are indeed transgender Catholics, possibly even at MSC. And Coletta is concerned about the effect that this new policy could have on students who are closeted and, now, fear expulsion.
“There could very well be students there who are now afraid to say anything because they’re going to lose their education,” he told The Daily Beast. “Students in your school shouldn’t be afraid to be open when you’re teaching them at the same time to be comfortable and to be open. It’s just hypocritical.”
Update 3/4/16 3:40 p.m.: MSC sent out a revised statement, which adds the sentence: “Mount Saint Charles Academy deeply regrets the unintended hurt feelings at and seeming insensitivity of our policy regarding the acceptance of transgendered [sic] young people.”
Update 3/9/16 2:50 p.m.: GoLocalProv has learned that MSC's ban on transgender students was removed after the school's board reviewed the policy. The updated handbook on the MSC website no longer contains the exclusion. Over the weekend, protesters assembled outside MSC to urge the school to reconsider. Today's reversal comes after David Coletta's original Change.org petition reached over 1,7000 signatures.
Coletta told The Daily Beast that alumni are now looking to meet with school administators in order to "move forward in a positive way."
"This is a huge step forward in the right direction," he said. "Obviously work still needs to be done, but to see that the MSC administration is willing to work with alumni and the trans community is incredible. It's always an amazing feeling to have your concerns heard and to see positive change occur as a result."