The Catholic Church, in its roughly 2,000 years of existence, often has felt the pressures of social change.
And in New Jersey this year, elementary schoolers — particularly the female ones — want to play basketball.
The cause has mobilized people in two towns in northern New Jersey who feel that, in the year 2017, gender discrimination has no place in athletics.
In Kenilworth, a 12-year-old girl at St. Theresa’s Catholic school was expelled, then re-enrolled, after her parents sued the institution for not allowing her to play basketball with the boys. There wasn’t enough interest to field a girls-only team.
And just a few miles away, in Clark, a Catholic Youth Organization team of nine fifth grade boys and two girls from St. John’s school was forced to cut short its season and forego the playoffs last week when league officials learned of their co-ed status and offered an ultimatum. Make the girls quit, they said, or forfeit.
The rowdy band of 10-year-olds, who had been teammates nearly half their lives, said no.
Instead of a scheduled game against another school, their season ended Friday with an inter-squad scrimmage, “unity” T-shirts, a pizza party and prayer, reported N.J. Advance Media.
“We are all here today supporting the girls and having this fun game,” one of the boys said. “It’s been a great season and it’s been fun having all you guys play basketball. Amen.”
All that came after a dramatic showdown before a crowded gym when the league director told referees not to officiate if the girls played. The team, in a unanimous show of hands, vowed to stick together.
Some parents, like Denise Laskody, cried.
“These kids are doing the right thing,” Laskody told N.J. Advance Media through tears. “We don’t have to tell them what to do. They just know.”
But criticism has been plentiful for the Archdiocese of Newark — the roadblock in both cases — which contends that rules are rules. League guidelines, the archdiocese claims, mandate the separation of girls and boys.
At one point, the parents even solicited the help of St. John’s pastor, who hand-delivered a letter to the cardinal, Joseph W. Tobin, reported NJ Advance Media. Tobin initially took their side and permitted the girls to finish out the season, the parents told the newspaper, but he changed his mind days later, citing legal issues.
Comprehensive coverage by N.J. Advance Media has propelled both stories into the state and national spotlight and portrayed the Catholic Church, once again, as a roadblock to equal opportunity, even as other institutions, like the Boy Scouts of America, have moved in recent years to shed traditional gender norms and accept both gay and transgender scouts.
The cases also show the disconnect between the Church’s stance on social issues and the way its future potential congregants and priests and deacons and nuns see the world. An Innovation Group survey released last year found that 38 percent of Gen Z respondents (aged 13-20) agreed strongly that gender defines a person less than it used to, and 40 percent said they somewhat agree.
The same survey found that 56 percent of Gen Zers know someone who uses a gender neutral pronoun and 70 percent strongly support access to gender neutral bathrooms in public spaces.
And, according to the survey, 88 percent agreed strongly that if a sport is made available to one gender, it should be made available to the other.
It’s unclear what is stopping the Archdiocese of Newark from changing its co-ed athletics policy.
A spokesman for the archdiocese of Newark told NJ Advance Media that the rules specifically state the teams should separate the genders, though league rules obtained and reviewed by the newspaper did not include directions on the gender make-up of teams in the JV black league, the division of the St. John’s team. Other divisions, however, did mandate boys-only and girls-only teams, according to NJ Advance Media.
Other archdioceses across the country have abandoned rules on gender participation. In 2013, the Philadelphia Archdiocese announced that girls could play full contact football on Catholic Youth Organization teams, reversing an old policy meant to “ensure safety,” reported CatholicPhilly.com at the time. The decision was spurred by a highly-publicized controversy involving an 11-year-old girl, Caroline Pla, who played with her CYO football team despite the gender-based rule.
The decision from the Archbishop ran contrary to the opinion of an assembled review panel, but was necessary, CatholicPhilly.com reported, because the Archdiocese faced a possible discrimination lawsuit under the federal Title IX statute.
The Women’s Sports Foundation, at the time, told the Associated Press that co-ed athletics take boys and girls out of “these straitjackets of gender roles.”
But two years later, when Pla aged out of the league at 13, the Archdiocese reversed its decision in 2015, citing safety concerns and claiming that “gender differences are important and play a large role in development of mature Christian male and female identity,” TV station ABC 6 reported at the time.
When Sydney Phillips, the 12-year-old from St. Theresa’s in New Jersey, was denied the option to play with her 7th grade boys basketball team, the New York Liberty WNBA took a public stand for the girl, inviting her, her little sister and another friend to practice with them at their Madison Square Garden training center. Across its social media channels, the New York Liberty said they “believe a girl’s place is on the court.”
After N.J. Advance Media reported on the showdown in Clark Friday night, several members of the team, including one of the girls who had been told she had to quit, were invited to appear on Good Morning America.
The two young boys told co-host Michael Strahan that they felt the treatment of their female teammates was unfair, especially since they had been playing together for four years.
Kayla Martel, whose parents coach the St. John’s team, said it was encouraging to know her teammates were willing to take a stand.
“It made me feel very good and very satisfying to know that they had my back,” Kayla Martel said during the show, “and that we would stick together for the whole season and that they wouldn’t want to play without me.”
University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, on the show to talk about his team’s 100th straight win, also weighed in on the controversy, saying “for the life of me (I) can’t understand the decision.”
“I don’t care what age you are, on the court, on the playing field, there is no such thing as bias,” he said, referencing the co-ed youth league in which his son played as a kid, where one of the best players was a young girl. “These kids have learned at a really young age what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Auriemma said his son played in a co-ed rec league as a boy, and one of the two girls on the team was one of the best. “Smart and reasonable people,” he said, should be able to understand the benefits.
“I hope the boys on that team grow up and when they’re adults they have the same empathy and the same feelings and the same level of respect for the women they’re going to be working with as they do for their teammates today,” he said. “That would be a great lesson for these kids.”