A marquee for Covington Catholic High School is seen Jan. 23 in Park Hills, Ky. CNS photo/Madalyn McGarvey, Reuters

Bob Brehl: Covington kids encounter in Washington opens old wounds

  • February 11, 2019

The repercussions from last month’s viral video of a confrontation between a group of Catholic high school students and a Native American man in Washington, D.C., feed into the schism of faith and politics in the U.S.

And some of the aftermath effects have the potential to spill over into Canada.

A quick recap: it was an encounter, ironically enough at the Lincoln Memorial with the great emancipating president gazing down, between Black Hebrew Israelites, American Natives and Catholic teenage boys, some of whom were wearing “Make America Great Again” caps.

A video from a camera phone instantly went viral on social media and sparked a firestorm of accusations, misleading statements and even death threats against the most prominent teen in the video who stares down the Native elder beating a drum. 

The students from Covington Catholic High School, a private boys’ school in Kentucky, were there as part of the annual pro-life March for Life. The Natives and Black Hebrew Israelites were there for separate marches and demonstrations.

The Catholic boys’ behaviour was immediately condemned, including by Church leaders, but other evidence later surfaced indicating the viral video did not depict exactly how things unfolded, including the boys being taunted by other demonstrators.

In no way am I condoning their behaviour, but it may not have been as racist and threatening as originally reported. An independent investigation is under way.

Still, the damage has been done to the reputation of the Catholic boys and Catholic education in general. The encounter underscored schisms in America and put religious education at the fore.

How could it potentially impact Canadians?

First, The Register already reported that organizers of Canada’s National March for Life on May 9 are hopeful neither counter-protesters nor pro-life marchers will mimic events in Washington. Let’s hope it is violence free.

Secondly, just before the Washington confrontation — on the same day, Jan. 18 — a hashtag appeared on Twitter called #ExposeChristianSchools.

It was started by Chris Stroop, 38, an Indianapolis-based writer and activist who calls himself an “ex-evangelical.” He was upset after news broke that Karen Pence, wife of U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, was returning to teach at a Christian school in Virginia that does not allow gay, bisexual or transgender students, parents or employees.

Then the Lincoln Memorial event became really big news and #ExposeChristianSchools exploded with thousands and thousands of tweets, most condemning religious education and lumping Catholic and Evangelical Christian schools in the same boat.

(Disclosure alert: I went through the Catholic system from kindergarten to Grade 13 and had what I consider to be a terrific education. Others have had different experiences. I’ve written about my experience in the past.)

Three weeks up on Twitter, there are still dozens and dozens of daily posts to #ExposeChristianSchools. There was even one about the recent sexual assault investigation at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto.

The hashtag itself has become a national news story. Julie Ingersoll, a religious studies professor at the University of North Florida, told the Associated Press that “it’s been portrayed as a campaign against Christianity from ‘the left,’ but it was really a group of young adults who grew up in Christian schools explaining how they believe they were personally harmed by it.”

Ingersoll added that “these harms were often related to sex, gender, shame and abuse. But stories also detailed impoverished education, especially when it came to science and history.”  

And The New York Times reported: “In the face of a national conversation about religion, race, gender and sexuality, many Christians fear that their way of life is being threatened.”

Which leads to the debate of Catholic education in Canada, specifically Ontario, where the discussion is frequently heated.

Big players in mainstream media, including the CBC and the Toronto Star, are often calling for one public system, despite Catholic schools regularly bettering public schools on things like graduation rates and overall quality of education.

Last year, two University of Western Ontario professors published an essay entitled, “It’s time to merge Ontario’s two school systems.” They claim the move could potentially save billions through maintenance, transportation and administration costs.

Indeed, there are about 27 organized groups in Ontario that are fighting to get rid of publicly-funded Catholic education, according to the Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education. OAPCE promotes and protects Catholic education in Ontario.

On the OAPCE website, Patrick Mendes, a volunteer with Dufferin-Peel Association of Parents for Catholic Education, writes an informative history of Catholic education in Ontario dating back to the 1830s.

“It’s been a long battle, but let`s not be complacent,” Mendes writes.

Could #ExposeChristianSchools — or a Canadian facsimile — impact the separate school debate in Ontario? Who knows, but for those fighting to protect Catholic education, Mendes offers sound advice.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

Comments (1)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

I am concerned by your statement: "In no way am I condoning their behaviour, but it may not have been as racist and threatening as originally reported." This seems to imply it was "racist" and "threatening".

Why is it that even now, with much...

I am concerned by your statement: "In no way am I condoning their behaviour, but it may not have been as racist and threatening as originally reported." This seems to imply it was "racist" and "threatening".

Why is it that even now, with much more detail available, the media are still trying to lay blame on the students especially the one who was routinely shown in the media? Why was/is there no critical comment concerning actions by the Black Hebrew Israelites or the native American or indigenous man?

As to Catholic education in Ontario and elsewhere, it seems to me that the Catholic system is to blame for some of its problems with regard to funding. I support the Catholic system but sincerely believe there is much room for improvement and cost sharing among the various boards of education that would not in any way impinge on the "Catholic" part of the education. Your article mentions maintenance, transportation and administration. For certain maintenance and transportation could see savings.

Mixing Catholic and non-Catholic kids on a school bus will not in any way cause a faith crisis! And picking up English and French kids will not cause a language crisis.

In Ontario we have multiple buses traveling on the same streets picking up English Catholic, French Catholic, English Public and French Public and perhaps other groups. Certainly there are ways these could be consolidated with the result of reduced costs - if there was the will to do that. If a corporation was faced with this situation and needed to reduce costs, you can be sure a way would be found. And if the Boards don't do it themselves, I predict the government will do it for them and it won't be as "pretty".

Catholic schools are also doing themselves a disservice by attempting to bolster their student populations by "poaching", that is attempting to get non-Catholics to attend their institutions, and then permitting those students to opt out of some of the various activities that are considered too Catholic for them.

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