Dean says Harrisons’ relationship violates St. Vincent’s ‘basic Christian values,’ but mother says discrimination is ‘just not right’

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John Wright  |  Online Editor

OLIVIA HAS 2 MOMMIES | St. Vincent’s, a school operated by a Bedford church that left the Episcopal Church USA over the denomination’s policies on ordaining women and accepting LGBT people, waited until just four days before school started to tell a lesbian couple that their daughter would not be allowed to attend classes there. (John Wright/Dallas Voice)

BEDFORD — Four-year-old Olivia Harrison was disappointed to learn she won’t be attending St. Vincent’s Cathedral School this year.

“We said, ‘You realize that you’re not going to go to the same school,’” said Olivia’s biological mother, Jill Harrison. “She said, ‘Yes I am, I want to go to that school, I want to play there.’

“They have a fish pond, and she said, ‘Yeah, but I need to feed the fish and take care of them,’” Jill Harrison said.

Regardless of whether Olivia fully understands the decision, she can now tell you why she’ll be starting pre-kindergarten at another school next week, instead of St. Vincent’s.

“They don’t like that I have two mommies,” Olivia says.

“She’s just repeating, so we’re careful about what we’re telling her,” said Jill Harrison. “I don’t want her to think that she in any way shape or form did anything wrong.”

Olivia, who’d been accepted into St. Vincent’s earlier this summer, was set to start on Monday, Aug. 23. But school officials abruptly changed their mind last week after learning that her parents, Jill and Tracy Harrison, are a lesbian couple.

St. Vincent’s is part of the Anglican Church in North America, a group that broke away from the Episcopal Church USA a few years ago, in part over the denomination’s acceptance of gays.

Since the school’s Aug. 19 decision to revoke Olivia’s acceptance, the story has made national news, being picked up by CNN in addition to several media outlets in North Texas.

Jill and Tracy Harrison said despite the initial shock and devastation of the school’s denial, they’re glad they’ve able to get the word out that anti-gay discrimination is alive and well.

“It’s been a whirlwind for the last few days, but it’s been worth every moment,” Jill Harrison told Dallas Voice during an interview at their home on Tuesday, Aug. 24. “I put up a blog on Facebook the other day that said, ‘Today’s probably the proudest day that I could call myself a parent, because I stood up for something that I believe in for my daughter.’”

‘Just not right’

After touring the school in June  — and thoroughly researching it online — the Harrisons settled on St. Vincent’s because of its solid academic reputation and its small class sizes, as well as the fact that it’s so close to their home.

They also said they wanted Olivia to learn the basic tenets of Christianity, such as the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments.

However, they were clueless about the school’s history and its split from the Episcopal Church.

Jill and Tracy Harrison were legally married in Canada in 2006. Both Olivia and their 2-year-old son, Spencer, were conceived with the help of a sperm donor.

Jill Harrison said she crossed out “father” on Olivia’s application to St. Vincent’s, replaced it with “mother” and inserted Tracy’s name — something they’ve done routinely on paperwork since Olivia was born.

On Tuesday, Aug. 17, the Harrisons attended parents night at St. Vincent’s, and they said they felt it went well. Among other things, Jill and Tracy Harrison requested stickers for each of their vehicles so that Tracy could drop off Olivia and Jill could pick her up.

Two days later — and four days before school was to start — St. Vincent’s officials called Jill Harrison and asked her to come to the school and meet with them.

After inquiring about Jill’s relationship with Tracy, the school revoked Olivia’s acceptance.

“I was absolutely hysterical when I left there,” Jill Harrison said. “It’s her first time in school. We’ve made a really big deal about it.”

Ryan Reed, dean of St. Vincent’s, said in e-mails this week that officials told Jill Harrison that, “the values taught at the school were in conflict with those at home.”

“We thought this might put Olivia in a very conflicted situation to which Jill agreed,” Reed wrote. “We don’t dispute God’s love for this family, just that one of the basic Christian values that we subscribe to is sexual activity inside a faithful, lifelong relationship between a husband and wife. As best we could ascertain, this was not something that Jill was in agreement about.”

Asked why it took so long for school officials to realize the situation, Reed claimed that they tried repeatedly to contact the Harrisons over the summer to inquire about the altered application form.

Reed also said the school would have accepted Olivia if Jill Harrison were single and a lesbian but agreed to remain abstinent.

The decision was pursuant to a strict school policy that was also used to deny admission to a gay couple’s daughter two years ago, to terminate an unmarried teacher who became pregnant, and to ban a parent — a husband who left his wife for another woman, Reed said.

“We are simply asking people to strive toward the traditional Christian teaching in matters of how we live our lives,” Reed said. “We don’t follow people around if they are single and dating to make sure the date stops at the front door,” he said. “We don’t monitor what husband and wives are doing. But if something becomes public, we try to handle it in a pastoral and private way.”

Asked how the school justifies punishing Olivia over her parents’ identity, Reed said, “It seems far from punishment to me, in fact, it seems more loving to refer them to a school that can accommodate their family situation rather than put her in a situation where the moral legitimacy (and still in Texas the legal legitimacy) of her mom’s relationship is called into question.”

Jill and Tracy Harrison agreed that they wouldn’t want Olivia to attend a school that doesn’t accept their relationship.

But they denied that school officials tried to contact them before parents night, and they questioned why it took so long. They’re also still struggling to come to terms with something they said they’d never experienced before.

“If persecution happens to just us, we’re adults, we can handle it,” said Tracy Harrison, who identifies as a “recovering Baptist.”

“But they’ve taken it a step farther than that. They’ve discriminated against us because we’re gay, and took it out on our 4-year-old daughter. And that’s just not right. There’s no part about that that’s right.”

Legal implications

Jill and Tracy Harrison said they’ll likely never forget some of the vicious comments that have been posted about their family online in response to the story.

They also denied rumors raised on some blogs that they plan to sue and try to force the school to accept Olivia, who’s now scheduled to begin attending a local fine arts preschool Monday, Aug. 30.

One LGBT legal expert confirmed that if the Harrisons did try to sue, they wouldn’t have a case, because the school appears well within its constitutional right to religious freedom and expression.

“There are some areas where there is some gray, but pretty much a religious school is off limits,” said Ken Upton, a senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal who’s based in Dallas. “The truth is, religion is still a very powerful thing in America when it comes to the law. They get a lot of free passes to do terrible things. That’s unfortunate, but that’s the way the First Amendment works.”

Although the Harrisons don’t plan to sue St. Vincent’s, the school remains embroiled in litigation with the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.

“They’re occupying Episcopal Church property, and they’re using our name,” said Katie Sherrod, a spokeswoman for the diocese.

Initial media reports referred to the school as St. Vincent’s Episcopal School. As of Thursday, Aug. 26, the school’s website had been changed to say St. Vincent’s Cathedral School, but Reed remained defiant.

“[The Episcopal Church USA] does not own the term Episcopal,” he wrote. “There is in this country the Charismatic Episcopal Church for example or in other places the Scottish Episcopal Church. In conversation, I refer to myself as an Anglican but until the lawsuit is settled we are still the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, ‘province of the Southern Cone’ (which is part of South America).”

Sherrod acknowledged that it could be years before the issues are resolved in court.

“They left the Episcopal Church over the issues of the ordination of women and over the blessing of same-sex unions and the fact that we have two openly gay bishops,” Sherrod said. “I’m not at all surprised that the leadership at St. Vincent’s school made this decision. It’s consistent with what they’ve been doing for years. I’m saddened by it, but I’m not surprised by it.”

Sherrod is among those who’ve contacted the Harrisons to offer her support and condolences.

“Jill had to sit Olivia down and say, ‘Nope, you aren’t going to get to go,’” Sherrod said. “That’s just heartbreaking.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010