By Barb Arland-Fye
A gay student at Prince of Peace Catholic School in Clinton has been chosen to receive a scholarship from an Iowa organization that promotes tolerance, but controversy has erupted over presentation of the award.
Keaton Fuller, a senior at Prince of Peace, is one of eight recipients of a Matthew Shepard Scholarship from the Eychaner Foundation based in Des Moines. The scholarship honors the memory of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old tortured and murdered in Wyoming in 1998 because he was gay. Scholarship recipients and their schools agreed in the application process to permit an Eychaner representative to present the award during graduation awards ceremonies.
While Keaton can receive the scholarship award during graduation ceremonies at Prince of Peace Church on May 20, a school representative – not an Eychaner representative – will present it. That decision has generated national press attention and confusion about the award presentation.
Diocesan officials explained their decision in a May 7 press release: “The Diocese of Davenport congratulates Keaton Fuller on receiving the Matthew Shepard Scholarship. The Diocese has a long-standing policy regarding guest speakers. This policy was explained to Keaton’s parents at their meeting with Bishop Martin Amos last week. It states: ‘We cannot allow any one or any organization which promotes a position that is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church to present at a diocesan institution.’ Bishop Amos also expressed his congratulations for Keaton’s reception of the award and recognized his hard work in achieving it.
“We are glad that Keaton and his family chose to pursue his education at Prince of Peace Catholic High School in Clinton, IA.,” the diocesan statement continued. “We hope that Keaton will benefit from the generous award and wish him well in his academic pursuits.”
Keaton expressed disappointment and frustration with the diocese’s decision in a May 7 letter addressed to the Prince of Peace student body and staff. But he had plenty of praise for his school.
“Being the lone openly gay student in a small, Catholic school has not always been easy. Upon first realizing I was gay, I suffered a lot of anxiety over wondering how everybody in this school would treat me if I were to tell people the truth about my sexual orientation. When I did begin to tell people, I was pleasantly surprised and touched to find that nearly everybody treated me with the same acceptance and respect as they always had. I have always been very grateful to you for this.”
Learning that he had been awarded the foundation’s highest scholarship — the $40,000 Gold Matthew Shepard Scholarship — was one of the happiest moments in his life, he wrote. “When word got around about this achievement, I received a great deal of praise from many of you, for which I am extremely grateful.”
He said that he felt “invalidated and unaccepted” by the diocese’s decision and felt that he was being “made to feel that my accomplishments are less than everybody else’s.”
The award recipient concluded his letter by asking the student body and staff to “Please help me by respectfully requesting that this decision be reversed. Share your thoughts about why all students deserve to be treated with respect and dignity at Prince of Peace.”
Rich Eychaner, who established the foundation that has granted 130 scholarships since 2000, also believes the diocese should reverse its decision.
“The mission of the Eychaner Foundation is to promote tolerance, understanding and anti-bullying policies. We help Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender students survive and work to prevent teen suicide. We’re shocked that Bishop Amos and the Diocese of Davenport find these positions ‘contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church.’”
Deacon David Montgomery, diocesan communications director, pointed out that the diocese has an anti-bullying policy and is strongly committed to tolerance and respectful behavior toward all people.
The opening statement of the policy reads: “The Diocese of Davenport encourages programs that promote anti-bullying and anti-harassment for all students. The diocese has taken a strong stance against the bullying and/or harassment of any student including on the basis of sexual orientation.”
“While the diocese supports anti-bullying programs promoted by the Eychaner Foundation, its advocacy for same-sex marriage is contrary to Catholic Social Teaching,” Deacon Montgomery said.
Eychaner told The Catholic Messenger, in response to a question, that the foundation supports equality in marriage for any two people committed to monogamy.
Eychaner also said that Prince of Peace’s curriculum director had signed the application form which permits a foundation representative to make the presentation. Eychaner said the stipulation was added because three other Catholic schools in Iowa — Kuemper High School in Carroll, Don Bosco High School in Gilbertville and Gehlen Catholic High School in Le Mars — had previously rejected the foundation from making presentations to recipients at those schools.
“How can it be acceptable to have school staff present the award in the school, but not allow the sponsor of the award to make the presentation? How is the award itself acceptable to Catholic beliefs but not those who make it possible? Why would we allow others to present an award we make possible?” he asked.
“Policies are meant to serve people, so let’s create policies that promote human dignity and stand by them,” said Keaton’s mother, Patricia Fuller.
“The diocese is not rejecting the scholarship. We certainly recognize it’s a generous scholarship,” said Diocesan Schools Superintendent Lee Morrison, who received more than 1,700 emails on May 7 about this issue. “We congratulate Keaton on the award and it will be allowed to be presented by a school representative at graduation along with the awards that all of the other students receive.”