WASHINGTON — The Catholic former president of a Florida university’s student senate says he was removed from office for questioning controversial policy positions of the Black Lives Matter group in a text message thread with fellow Catholic students.
Denton, a member of Florida State University’s (FSU) Class of 2021, served in the FSU Student Government Association for three years, including service as the president of the student senate.
He says the student senate voted to remove him on June 5 “for simply stating Catholic doctrines in a private group chat” about policy positions of BlackLivesMatter.com, Reclaim the Block, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on sexuality and the family, abortion, and policing.
In a GroupMe text messaging forum for members of the university’s Catholic Student Union, a conversation reportedly discussed the May 27 shooting of Tony McDade, a 38 year-old black biological female who identified as a transgender man, by Tallahassee Police.
In the discussion, which focused on the broader issues of racism, one member brought up causes that students could financially support to advance racial justice.
Denton intervened to point out what he felt were problematic positions taken by some of the groups mentioned.
“As a devout Catholic and a college student, I felt that it was my responsibility to point out this discrepancy, to make sure that my fellow Catholics knew what they were partaking in,” he told CNA.
Screenshots of Denton’s texts show that he said “everyone should be aware that BlackLivesMatter.com, Reclaim the Block, and the ACLU all advocate for things that are explicitly anti-Catholic.”
When asked by a member what specifically he was referring to, Denton replied in the thread that “BlackLivesMatter.com fosters ‘a queer-affirming network’ and defends transgenderism.”
The ACLU, he continued, “defends laws protecting abortion facilities and sued states that restrict access to abortion.”
Reclaim the Block, he said, “claims less police will make our communities safer and advocates for cutting PD’s budgets. This is a little less explicit, but I think it’s contrary to the Church’s teaching on the common good.”
Denton says he was not operating in his official capacity as student senator in the forum, but a student in the thread sent screenshots of his texts to members of the student senate without his permission.
An initial student senate motion to bring up a vote of no-confidence in Denton failed on June 3. A change.org petition had also circulated, calling for Denton’s removal from the student senate. Late on Friday, June 5, the senate did hold a vote and removed him from office.
Highlighting Denton’s concern about defending “transgenderism,” the change.org petition said the student had made “transphobic and racist remarks.”
“Transphobic and racist behavior and comments will not be tolerated in any form at any level at FSU,” the petition said.
A June 4 column in Spire, a student-run magazine at the university, said that Denton “holds values which are antithetical to FSU’s anti-discrimination policy and could make our school’s most marginalized students feel unwelcome and unsafe.”
“Denton’s words are alarming for many reasons. Firstly, he interrupted a conversation about systemic racism and the murder of black Americans by police officers with his own fears of ‘anti-Catholic’ discrimination. Denton, a white man, centered himself in a discussion about racism, treating advocacy for ‘things that are explicitly anti-Catholic’ as equivalent to anti-black racism.”
“Like many, Denton is attempting to use his religious identification as a cover for bigotry and cannot be let off the hook,” the op-ed said.
A June 3 statement from the FSU College Democrats said that Denton’s messages “demonstrate a clear lack of respect for our Black and LGBTQ+ students at FSU.”
Denton told CNA his removal “is ludicrous, and is blatantly unconstitutional to discriminate against me for that.”
“I’m concerned for the future of students who hold religious views on college campuses, specifically students who are Catholic, devout Catholics,” he said. “This is clearly setting a bad precedent.”
Most concerning to Denton, he said, was that the student senate caved to the demands of the “mob,” he said.
“Quite frankly, the student senators, they didn’t uphold the oath that they took when they were sworn in to the student senate by disrespecting the Constitution of the United States of America and removing me from my position for being a Catholic and a student leader, simultaneously,” he said.
“They did this because of the outcry,” he said. “It was quite scary to witness how this mob could influence all these senators in two days to just switch their vote and remove me as president, for being Catholic.”
The “Black Lives Matter” social movement has gained international recognition with mass protests against racism and police brutality in recent weeks.
While demonstrations have been organized on the local level by smaller groups, the largest and most well-funded group is the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, which operates the website blacklivesmatter.com. It advocates for several policies apparently unrelated to racism, such as working to “dismantle cisgender privilege,” to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure,” and to “foster a queer‐affirming network.”
Smaller network affiliates often organize local protests, and other groups use the phrase “Black Lives Matter” but are not officially a part of the global network.
Catholics CNA spoke with last week affirmed that while the movement’s fight for racial justice is necessary, some of the Black Lives Matter Global Network’s policy positions on sexuality and the family cannot be supported by Catholics.
Denton said on Monday that, in drawing attention to those controversial positions of the network, he felt that Catholics would be funding these goals if they gave money to the organizations.
“Let me make it unequivocally clear that ‘Black Lives Matter,’ the statement, the sentiment, there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said, noting that his concern was about financial support for a particular organization.
“They might advocate for good things, but you can’t separate the bad from the good when you’re financially supporting an organization,” he said.
Denton, represented by the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, has now filed an appeal to the supreme court of the university’s Student Government Association, challenging his removal as a violation of the student senate rules and university rules, as well as an infringement on his First Amendment rights. He is asking for his reinstatement as student senate president.