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Gay student: Catholic school should relent on Matthew Shepard scholarship


Keaton Fuller, a senior at Prince of Peace High School in Clinton, Iowa.

An openly gay student in Iowa says he hopes a Catholic bishop will reconsider and let a gay rights advocacy group present a $40,000 scholarship to him during his graduation ceremony.

“Everybody at the school has always been very accepting and extremely encouraging toward me,” Keaton Fuller, a senior at Prince of Peace Catholic School in Clinton, Iowa, told msnbc.com. “That’s why the latest turn of events has been such a surprise -- I feel invalidated and unaccepted.”

Bishop Martin Amos in Davenport, Iowa, overruled school officials last week, saying he would not allow the Des Moines-based Eychaner Foundation to present its Matthew Shepard Scholarship to Fuller because the group’s support of gay rights conflicts with church doctrine. Instead, a school staff member will present the scholarship at the assembly.

Fuller, 18, said he was stunned: The bishop's decision comes after a Prince of Peace school official confirmed the award could be presented by an Eychaner scholarship committee member during the school's graduation ceremony on May 20. The Matthew Shepard Scholarship is given to students who are openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

Attempts by msnbc.com to contact Amos or officials with the Diocese of Davenport were unsuccessful on Tuesday. A school official referred calls to Edward O'Neill, president of Prince of Peace's school board, who could not be reached for comment.

“At some point, we hope they realize and agree for us to present the award because it is the right thing to do,” said Mike Bowser, a spokesman with the Eychaner Foundation.

Iowa businessman and gay rights activist Rich Eychaner founded the activism group and has awarded more than 130 Matthew Shepard scholarships to graduating high school seniors who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender since 2000. It is named for the gay Wyoming college student killed in 1998.

"The $40,000 scholarship to the University of Iowa was awarded to Keaton for his scholastic achievement and work reducing homophobia in his school and community as an openly gay student," Bowser said.

Fuller said he is among 70 seniors graduating from Prince of Peace this spring. He plans to attend University of Iowa in the fall. He wants to study film. 

For Fuller, being the lone openly gay student in a small Catholic high school has had its hardships. Yet, he said, he found solace among staff and students during those difficult times when he questioned his sexual orientation. He said teachers have always supported him, making sure he believed in himself.

"The whole thing has put the teachers and staff in an awkward position," Fuller said.

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O'Neill, the school board president, said he was disappointed with the bishop's decision, according to local media reports. "We preach tolerance and acceptance but then we turn around and we don't practice what we preach," The Associated Press quoted O'Neill as saying. "If the bishop says we're not going to do it, I can voice my objection to it, but there's not a whole lot I can do."

Fuller said he has been encouraged by his peers and community and will press on.

"It is difficult to understand how, after I have spent 13 years at this school and worked hard during all of them, I would be made to feel that my accomplishments are less than everybody else’s," Fuller told msnbc.com Monday evening.

"This whole ordeal has been incredibly hurtful, and I am even sadder that this will be one of my last experiences to remember my high school years by."

Fuller released an open letter Monday calling on church officials to reverse its decision. An online petition drive launched on Change.org also had garnered 4,007 supporters as of Tuesday morning.

In his letter, Fuller wrote: "This is a teachable moment for Prince of Peace to stand up against rejecting and invalidating the accomplishments of any student. 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."

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Fuller's mother, Patricia Fuller, said the last few weeks have been tough, but she was encouraged by her son's spirit and optimism.

“He was saddened initially and felt invalidated,” Patricia Fuller told msnbc.com Monday evening. “But he is an incredibly courageous person. He is pushing this issue because he knows -- and we know -- there are other gay students out there in other schools who are suffering in silence and that matters to him.”

“If he can have the courage to do this, then we can have the courage to support him. We support the respect and dignity of all people and we want to move that idea forward.”

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