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Students must use names, pronouns assigned at birth under new Worcester Catholic schools policy

Robert J. McManus has drawn controversy as bishop.Rick Cinclair/Associated Press

Catholic school students in Worcester will be required to dress, “conduct themselves,” and use pronouns and bathrooms consistent with their sex at birth, regardless of their gender identity, under a new policy announced this week by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester.

The policy bans bullying or harassment based on “a student’s perceived sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity” but also forbids students from expressing, celebrating, or advocating for “same-sex attraction in such a way as to cause confusion or distraction in the context of Catholic school classes, activities, or events.”

The policy covers 21 schools with more than 5,260 students and will take effect in the coming academic year, said Ray Delisle, a diocesan spokesperson.

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The Boston Archdiocese does not have such a policy for schools but is considering one, Terrence Donilon, an archdiocese spokesperson, said Thursday.

“We are going through a collaborative process right now that has not been completed,” Donilon said by email. “It is simply too early to discuss just yet.” As of September 2022, the Boston Archdiocese had 98 schools with an enrollment of 32,370, Donilon said.

Worcester Bishop Robert J. McManus approved the policy, called “Catholic Education and the Human Person,” in late June and it was announced publicly on Tuesday. It is intended to provide a uniform policy to replace individual and potentially differing ones at the diocese’s various schools.

“Individual situations were arising which underscored a need for a single policy which clearly states church teaching and provides consistent application of that teaching across all our schools,” David Perda, the diocese’s superintendent of Catholic schools, said in the announcement.

The Worcester policy says transgender students “are expected to conduct themselves at school in a manner consistent with their biological sex,” and lists a number of locations where such behavior is required, including school athletic events, dances, locker rooms, showers, and restrooms.

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The policy also requires that students be called by their birth names or by pronouns consistent with their sex at birth, although it says there may be “rare exceptions only on a limited, case-by-case basis, to be determined by the principal of the school.”

Leaders of Worcester’s LGBTQ+ community have begun to organize against the new policy, said Joshua Croke, president of the Worcester nonprofit Love Your Labels, which supports LGBTQ+ youth.

“Bishop McManus has for many years now been perpetuating harms and what I would consider violence against LGBTQ+ folks, especially our young people, and this policy is just an added layer of his intention to cause harm,” Croke said. “We’re pretty upset but are hoping that there will be some loud community responses to this policy.”

On Thursday, Love Your Labels, the YWCA of Central Massachusetts, and MassEquality, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, started a petition drive opposing the policy.

“We firmly believe that faith and acceptance can coexist. It is possible to hold religious beliefs while recognizing the humanity and rights of LGBTQ+ individuals,” the petition states. “The Catholic Church has a moral obligation to ensure that its educational institutions provide nurturing environments where all students can thrive, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.”

Transgender people have been a target of the recent culture wars, as religious conservatives and Republican politicians across the country seek to ban gender-transition care for minors, limit what schools teach about gender and sexual identity, and prevent transgender girls from playing on girls teams. Catholic schools nationwide have faced pressure from both the right and the left to embrace policies in line with their values.

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Last year in Nebraska, in response to community pushback, the Archdiocese of Omaha relaxed a policy that would have expelled students who asked to be identified as transgender and fired any teachers who identify as transgender, according to news reports.

Around the same time last year in Colorado, the Archdiocese of Denver provided its schools with a controversial 17-page document called “Guidance for Issues Concerning the Human Person and Sexual Identity,” which advised school leaders not to encourage students’ acceptance or approval of LGBTQ+ identities and warned that “the spread of gender ideology presents a danger to the faith of Christians,” according to the Denver Post.

On Wednesday, the Denver Archdiocese sued the state, saying Colorado’s nondiscrimination policies prevent it from participating in a new universal preschool program because of the diocese’s exclusion of LGBTQ+ students, families, and teachers, the Post reported.

Jonathan Feingold, an associate professor at Boston University School of Law, said the the Diocese of Worcester’s new policy would be “patently unlawful” at any public school, in violation of federal and state prohibitions against sex-based discrimination.

“But most of those laws, if not all of them, have exemptions or just don’t apply to private religious organizations,” Feingold said, “which is one reason why I think we have seen the proliferation of precisely this sort of policy from Catholic dioceses across the country.”

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Feingold said it’s unlikely legal challenges to these kinds of policies will succeed given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, which has been receptive to arguments from religious institutions. Even the Biden administration’s Department of Education, which this week exempted Baylor University, a private Baptist school, from sexual harassment claims regulated under Title IX, has shown “it might not have an appetite” to enforce sex discrimination laws at religiously affiliated educational institutions, Feingold said.

“That obviously creates a really, really horrific situation for students in these schools and their families, because obviously the views that are expressed in these policies are not shared by all people who are practicing Catholics or who choose to send their kids to Catholic schools,” he said.

McManus has drawn controversy as bishop. In 2022 he declared the Nativity School of Worcester could no longer call itself Catholic after officials at the all-boys middle school rejected his demand that LGBTQ+ Pride and Black Lives Matter flags be taken down from school property. The school was also barred from celebrating Mass and the sacraments.

Earlier this year, the Worcester Diocese published a report examining more than 70 years of clergy abuse of minors that omitted the names of the priests found to be responsible, unlike similar reports from many other dioceses.

The policy announced this week holds that “if a student’s expression of gender, sexual identity, or sexuality should cause confusion or disruption at the school, or if it should mislead others, cause scandal, or have the potential for causing scandal, then the matter will first be discussed with the student and his/her parents.”

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“If the issue is not resolved to the satisfaction of the school, whose primary goal must always be to uphold Catholic truths and principles, then the student may be dismissed from the school, after the parents are first given the opportunity to withdraw the student from the school,” it reads.

The policy quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church on accepting one’s own sexual identity and embracing “the conjugal love of a man and woman within the bonds of marriage,” and adds that the quoted “teachings of the church are not mere antiquated notions.”

It goes on to quote Pope Francis saying that “the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created,” so that “we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator.”

The policy says the Catholic Church “must not demean or deny the sincerity and struggle of those who experience same-sex attraction or who feel their true gender identity is different from their biological sex” but instead “seek to accompany them on their journey of life, offering them the light of the Gospel as they try to find their way forward.”

“These truths are not merely faith-based; rather, such realities are also knowable through the use of properly functioning senses and right reason,” the policy says.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him @jeremycfox. Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her @DDpan.