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Exeter High Labels Catholic Student ‘Bully,’ Defends Punishment Over Free Speech

Exeter High School and SAU 16 struck back against a Catholic student suing over his free speech rights, saying he was disciplined for being a bully and not for expressing his religious views. However, they acknowledge in their court filing that the “bullying” in question was expressing his opinion on gender.

The student, known in the lawsuit as M.P., claims he was disciplined for expressing his opinion, informed by his Catholic faith, that there are only two genders. M.P. expressed these views off the school campus and was then suspended from the football team for one game, according to his lawsuit.

The district’s attorney, Michel Eaton, wrote in a response to the lawsuit filed late last week, there is no free speech case here. Eaton also claims M.P. was not suspended by the school, but benched for one game by his coach. The benching had nothing to do with the school’s anti-discrimination policies regarding transgender issues.

“M.P.’s coach did not decide to bench M.P. based upon M.P.’s opinion that there are only two genders, nor would he. Rather, M.P. was benched for using crude, inappropriate, and disrespectful language while communicating with Student Doe. This behavior was consistent with M.P.’s documented history of bullying and inappropriate behavior, including such behavior on the school bus and such behavior targeted at Student Doe specifically,” Eaton wrote.

Student Doe, who is not transgender or non-binary, is the student with whom M.P. had a reportedly heated conversation regarding gender and sexuality while on the school bus. The conversation later continued via text messaging, according to court records. Student Doe, in turn, reported the conversation — which took place outside the classroom and off the football field — to M.P.’s coach, Eaton wrote.

“M.P. ‘s coach took what he believed to be an appropriate and limited remedial measure to teach and ensure the respect that is expected of all student athletes,” Eaton wrote.

According to Eaton’s filing, Student Doe and M.P. have a long-standing antagonistic relationship. Eaton submitted as evidence the football team code of conduct, which M.P. signed, and copies of the text conversation between M.P. and Student Doe. However, both items were sealed by the court and not available to the public. 

Whether or not M.P. engaged in bullying, the district acknowledges in Eaton’s filing that M.P. was disciplined for expressing his views, however crudely, while off-campus. It’s similar to the free-speech case in which a Pennsylvania high school student was disciplined after she posted a profanity-laced message to Snapchat that she recorded at a convenience store.

The U. S. Supreme Court last year ruled 8 to 1 in favor of Brandi Levy, the former cheerleader at Mahanoy Area High School. The high court found the school violated Levy’s First Amendment rights when it reprimanded and suspended her from the junior varsity team because of her off-campus comments about the cheer team.

While the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sided with Levy in her case, the New Hampshire ACLU has been silent in the case of M.P. In the past, protecting an individual’s personal speech against government action would have been a classic ACLU  case. But the organization has become openly partisan, as The New York Times reported in a story headlined “Once a Bastion of Free Speech, the A.C.L.U. Faces an Identity Crisis.”

Instead of suing on behalf of an individual’s rights,  New Hampshire’s ACLU is part of a federal lawsuit opposing New Hampshire’s new anti-discrimination law. They want to overturn the law preventing teachers and government employees from teaching that “a person, because of their membership in one or more identified group(s), is inherently either: (1) racist, sexist, or oppressive, consciously or unconsciously or (2) superior or inferior to people of another identified group.”

The ACLU-NH is joined in the lawsuit by Andres Mejia,  director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice for the Exeter Region Cooperative School District, and a board member of the Black Lives Matter Seacoast organization. Some Exeter parents have questioned whether a member of a group that claims all white people, regardless of their behavior, participate in white supremacy can treat students fairly. 

Writing about the Exeter case in the Portsmouth Herald, former political consultant Alicia Preston Xanthopoulos defended the Catholic student’s right to express opinions others — including the school district — don’t like.

“No one has the right not to be offended. I do actually have the right to say something that might offend you,” Xanthopoulos wrote. “That’s precisely why there is the First Amendment. It’s not there to protect popular speech, it is there to protect you from being punished by the government for speech that is not popular.

“Which, horrifyingly, is precisely what occurred here.”

More NH Parents Opt for Catholic Schools as COVID Surges

Enrollment in New Hampshire’s Catholic schools continues to climb as parents seek alternatives to public education.

Dana Kelliher wanted more for her boys, Aiden, 10, and Connor, 8. After almost two years of dealing with her sons’ educations being held back in public schools due to pandemic-related restrictions, Kelliher believed her sons could be doing more.

“We were really just looking for a more rigorous curriculum,” she said. “We wanted them to do more old-fashioned learning. I didn’t want them on a chrome book everyday.”

The Kelliher’s settled on Saint Joseph Regional Catholic School in Salem. There, her sons are in grounded programs that push them to excel, she said, especially in reading and working.

“I feel like they’re coming home with actual grades, and there’s a lot more communication with the teachers,” she said.

The Kelliher’s are far from alone in switching to parochial schools. According to the Diocese of Manchester, 214 new students enrolled in its 18 diocesan schools at the start of this current school year, for a total of 3,692 enrolled students statewide. That increase represents a 6.2 percent increase over the 3,427 students in parochial schools last year.

“This is a resurgence in an interest in Catholic education across the state,” said Alison Mueller, director of marketing, enrollment, and development for Catholic schools. “We believe that parents are the primary educators of their children, and we serve to partner with them in that education and formation. This type of message resonates with parents.”

Mueller said parents want better academics, and also better values in schools. In a recent survey distributed by the Catholic Schools Office, parents indicated they want God in the classroom, traditional academics, and family values.

“Parents want to know that when they send their child to school each day, they are in a safe and joyful place. The pandemic disrupted the educational system in 2020 and since then, I think parents have become more invested in ensuring the best outcomes and educational options for their children. More families are realizing they do, in fact, have options,” said Superintendent of Catholic Schools David Thibault

The Catholic school enrollments started going up in the summer of 2020, with a first wave of about 500 new students. The diocese responded to the pandemic by launching a Transfer Incentive Program to help families afford the tuition. They also announced a commitment to in-person learning during the coming school year.  

After parents experienced months of pandemic-related shutdowns, the parochial alternative looked good to many. The parents who tried it apparently liked it. According to Mueller, 80 percent of those students who made the switch to Catholic schools are still enrolled.

Kelliher said the small community built around the school is providing a positive and safe social setting for her children. She also feels more connected to the staff and teachers in the school than she did before.

“I feel more in the loop, knowing what they’re doing everyday,” she said.

Parochial schools aren’t the only alternate education being explored by New Hampshire parents. More than 4,100 students are homeschooling this year, according to the Department of Education. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, about 3,000 students homeschooled in New Hampshire, though that figure jumped in the 2020/2021 school year to more than 6,000.

Across the country, public school districts are openly discussing a return to remote learning, despite overwhelming data showing it is detrimental to educational outcomes. Prince Georges County, Md. has already announced it is ending classroom instruction until at least January 18, 2022. More schools are expected to follow.

New Hampshire offers Education Freedom Accounts for parents looking for assistance to pay for private school, or even homeschool materials and equipment. More than 1,600 students have taken advantage of the program so far. The state is also home to 30 public charter schools that provide uniquely tailored programs for students throughout the state. 

Biden’s BBB Daycare Plan Biased Against Faith-Based Providers, Critics Say

Hundreds of New Hampshire families could see their childcare endangered due to provisions in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better spending plan that penalizes religious education.

The $1.7 trillion social safety net spending plan includes funding for early childhood education and childcare centers, a feature its booster are quick to tout. The White House pledges “universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year olds,” and taxpayer-funded subsidies to many families to keep child care costs “no more than 7 percent of income.” 

However, the bill also places multiple mandates on childcare facilities that accept the funding. For example, they must raise the salaries of their workers to those commensurate with the average elementary school teacher in their area, which would mean more than doubling them in most cases. Economist Casey Mulligan at the University of Chicago estimates the bill’s regulations would raise costs by 80 percent.

And then there’s the bill’s bias against religious and faith-based daycare.

At issue is a provision mandating all providers comply with federal nondiscrimination statutes, which would end up excluding many child care facilities associated with religious organizations and churches.

Bevin Kennedy, the development and communications cabinet secretary for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, said that means the state’s six Catholic childcare centers could be left out.

“There are six Catholic childcare providers throughout New Hampshire that serve the needs of hundreds of families across the state. The Build Back Better Act in its current form contains new funding for pre-K services, but it makes it virtually impossible for many faith-based child care providers to participate in receiving these funds because of explicit obligations that numerous religions and faith communities cannot meet,” Kennedy said.

Last week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with dozens of other faith-based groups across the religious spectrum, sent a letter to congressional leaders calling out the discrimination baked into the spending bill.

“The faith community has always affirmed that parents should choose the best environment for care and education of their children. The current Build Back Better Act provisions would severely limit the options for parents, suffocate the mixed delivery system for child care and pre-kindergarten, and greatly restrict the number of providers available for a successful national program,” the letter states. 

New Hampshire federal delegation, including Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas, and Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jean Shaheen, fully back the BBB spending plan.

The problem with the bill, according to the letter, is any organization that receives federal funding would be required to meet the federal government’s non-discrimination requirements, without any exemptions for religious groups. 

Kennedy said the Build Back Better bill’s lack of a religious exemption is a change from past federal funding plans.

“Although the federal funding provision at issue has the laudable goal of increasing the availability of pre-K services, the measure is drafted in such a way that many pre-K programs cannot even participate,” she said.

Early childcare is vital to the many low-income Granite States families served by the church, as it allows parents to work to support their families, according to Kennedy.

“The Diocese of Manchester has serious concerns about these provisions, as our childcare centers are imperative to enabling many families to work, including many low-income parents or guardians providing for their families,” Kennedy said.

Churches and religious organizations provide a disproportionate amount of low-cost daycare for low-income families. As Mulligan points out, “churches and other faith-based institutions have a natural cost advantage in child care because church facilities would otherwise sit unused on weekdays, when the demand for care is greatest. Build Back Better would squander this advantage by financing capacity expansions only at nonreligious competitors.”

More than half of American families using pre-kindergarten and early child care services get their care through a religious-based organization or providers.

Kamala’s Catholic Attacks May Be Bad Form but Good 2020 Politics

When Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he defended Catholics and their place in American public life.  “If this election is decided on the basis that 40 million [Catholic] Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser,” Kennedy said during his campaign, rejecting the suggestion of a religious test for public service.

Fast-forward to today where likely 2020 POTUS candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is suggesting exactly that.  As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Harris questioned a judicial candidate’s fitness for the bench due to his membership in the Knights of Columbus.

“I wish I could say I was surprised,” Chuck McGee, head of the Concord, NH Knights of Columbus, told NHJournal. “These are the struggles that Catholics are subjected to, it’s what we experience.  Our religious beliefs are under attack.”

Questioning a public servant’s religion may be ugly and perhaps even unconstitutional. But could it also be smart Democratic primary politics in the key First-In-The-Nation state of New Hampshire?

In prepared questions for Brian Buescher, a nominee to the federal bench in Nebraska, Sen. Harris called the Knights of Columbus an “all-male society” and demanded “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?”

She also attacked the Knights for supporting traditional marriage and asked “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed marriage equality when you joined the organization?”

Buescher, a lifelong Catholic, answered: “I do not recall if I was aware whether the Knights of Columbus had taken a position on same-sex marriage at the time I joined at the age of 18.”

Sen. Harris’s implication is clear: If you believe the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion and same-sex marriage, you may not be fit to hold a public office like a judgeship.  And she’s not alone. Sen. Mazie Hirono, another Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the Knights of Columbus “extreme” and asked Buescher if he would “end his membership to avoid any appearance of bias.”

“It’s very troubling. It’s a matter of singling out members of Catholic faith,”  NH State Deputy for the Knights of Columbus Glenn Camley told NHJournal. “Many other faiths, including Islam, have similar teaching on life and marriage. It’s not the theology. They’re making an example out of Catholics.”

Camley joined other KoC members, including the national leader Carl Anderson in pointing out that their organization was formed in part to confront anti-Catholic bigotry from organizations like the KKK.

In a message to his membership on Thursday Anderson said “such attacks on the basis of our Catholic faith are hardly new.”  He rejected the notion that the Knights are upholding some unusual view or alternative dogma that might raise questions about their organization. “Simply put, our positions are now, and have always been, Catholic positions.”

In other words, Sen. Harris’s criticism of Judge Buescher is a critique of every traditional, practicing Catholic in New Hampshire. And it’s a critique Catholics like NH state representative (and Fourth Degree Knight) Walt Stapleton have come to expect.  “So anti-Catholicism raises its ugly head in American politics—what else is new?” the Claremont Republican told NHJournal.  “Sen. Harris’s pejorative questions for a Catholic nominee certainly reflect that.”

Several commentators, including Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, have pointed out that Harris’s approach could be viewed as unconstitutional. “There is no place for a religious test like this in our country,” Rev. Rivers said. “Our constitution forbids it and elected leaders should know better than to try to impose it.”

But elections aren’t won or lost on constitutionality. They’re won with votes. Practicing Catholics in New Hampshire may have a legitimate complaint about Sen. Harris’s views, but will they hurt her in the First-In-The-Nation primary voters?

“No, it won’t hurt her,” Democratic State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro told NHJournal.  D’Allesandro, viewed as a key player in the New Hampshire Democratic POTUS primaries, is a Third Degree Knight himself, but he doesn’t see a political downside for Sen. Harris. “The day when the Catholic Church played a major role in our elections has passed.”

The data appear to back him up.

According to a 2014 Pew Research survey, New Hampshire is one of the most secular states in the country. Fewer than half of all residents ever attend a worship service and only 33 percent of Granite Staters say religion is important in their lives.  And while Massachusetts may be considered a hub of Catholicism, just 26 percent of New Hampshire residents call themselves Catholic. The largest religious identification in the Granite State?

“None.”

And that’s the state as a whole. In a UNH poll of Democratic primary voters in the 2012 cycle, 61 percent said they rarely/never attend church. Only a third of white Democrats nationwide believe in the biblical concept of God, according to a Pew Research Survey taken last year, far below their GOP counterparts.

Steve Krueger, president of the Boston-based group Catholic Democrats, doesn’t agree. He called the statements by Sens. Harris and Hirono “unfortunate.”

“I was speaking to one of our Michigan members and he was extremely upset,” Krueger said. “Non-Catholics don’t realize how much the Knights of Columbus are a part of our Catholic community.”

“Our supporters are very liberal,  very Catholic and–the party should remember– strong Democrats.”  Krueger points out that, while New Hampshire is secular, “a small shift in the Catholic vote in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2016 would have made Hillary Clinton president today.”

But to get to the swing states in November, you have to win early primary states like New Hampshire.  And in a state where the Democratic candidates for governor took the most extreme pro-choice positions—including support for taxpayer-funded, late-term abortions—it may make more sense to confront the Catholic church than reach out to its members. However unpleasant practicing Catholics in the Granite State might find it.

“Our order has a strict no-politics policy,” Camley says. “We have Republicans, Democrats, Independents. We’re just a group of Catholic men trying to help the community. We do food drives, we support the Special Olympics.  We’re not ‘extreme.’ We’re your neighbors.”

But they’re not likely Democratic primary voters.

How far has the political landscape shifted since the JFK era? Kennedy, who won the 1960 NH Democratic POTUS primary with 85 percent of the vote, was himself a Fourth Degree member of Bunker Hill [MA] Council No. 62.

The voters who will pick the Democrats’ 2020 nominee, on the other hand,  are secular, they’re pro-choice and they’re pro-gay-marriage.  Being anti-Catholic isn’t necessarily a bug for Sen. Harris. It could be a feature.