Ruling damages case alleging ‘woke’ climate at Academy of the Holy Names

A judge cited First Amendment concerns in dismissing the lawsuit’s 14 counts.
Academy of the Holy Names faces Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa.
Academy of the Holy Names faces Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Nov. 24, 2021|Updated Nov. 25, 2021

TAMPA — A Hillsborough County circuit judge has dismissed all counts in a lawsuit that accused Academy of the Holy Names of abandoning Catholic principles and being too “woke.”

Judge Paul Huey, according to both parties in the suit, issued a verbal ruling citing concerns that the First Amendment prevented the court from delving into church teachings.

While the prominent Tampa school on Bayshore Boulevard was encouraged by the ruling, plaintiffs Anthony and Barbara Scarpo said the case is not over. The judge told them they could reword two of the 14 counts tossed out, Anthony Scarpo said in an interview.

“This is not a spiking of the football in the end zone,” he said. “The judge dismissed it because he’s not allowed to decide what is and isn’t Catholic.”

While the lawsuit alleged the school was not faithful to Catholic teachings, the Scarpos contend what they have is a breach of contract case.

At the center of the lawsuit is a $1.35 million donation pledged by the couple in 2017 at a fundraising gala. Their daughters attended the school and it was a place at the time they said they cherished. They wanted the money to be used for disadvantaged students and were named chairs of the academy’s fundraising campaign. The school renamed its auditorium the “Scarpo Family Theatre.”

But in June, after one of their daughters had graduated and another had transferred schools, the couple sued, claiming the two and several unnamed others were subject to “indoctrination” and that the school’s focus on equity and social justice issues resulted in a “woke ideology” divorced from Catholic teachings, making students feel shamed for their race or privilege.

The filing led to a swift outpouring of support from alumni. Hundreds signed a letter in support of the school. The filing also led to a $100,000 donation to the school from Tampa attorney Ralph Fernandez, who sharply rebuked the Scarpos and said the “woke” actions they described were in fact Christian.

But the Scarpos said they spoke for hundreds of others who felt they did not have a voice.

“In a lot of ways it’s like Tampa’s best kept secret: Tampa’s Catholic school on Bayshore wasn’t really Catholic at all,” Anthony Scarpo said. “It was their own homogenized version.”

In a brief supporting the motion to dismiss the case, the Florida Catholic Conference, which accredits the school and was also named as a defendant in the suit, stated that the lawsuit should be dismissed on the grounds of separation of church and state.

“The needle that Plaintiffs are attempting to thread is so small as to be non-existent,” their attorney wrote. “It is difficult to imagine how this Court could evaluate that decision without involving itself in Catholic doctrine and teachings.”

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter

We’ll break down the local and state education developments you need to know every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

In a statement, school spokesperson Emily Wise said the academy is hopeful that Huey’s ruling settles the matter. A written ruling is expected within weeks.

“As we have maintained since the beginning of the lawsuit, we carry a torch of faith that was lit by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary 140 years ago,” Wise wrote. “All Academy leaders, from the Board to the faculty and staff, are encouraged to be models of Christ’s teachings and Gospel values as we fulfill our roles as educators, mentors and nurturers.”

Anthony Scarpo said he has been encouraged by what he has heard from current parents about the school’s new headmaster, who took over weeks after the lawsuit was filed. However, it “doesn’t discount the pain” his daughters and others went through, he said.

The case, he said, is reflective of larger rifts happening within the church across the country.

“We just want the school to continue on a positive path,” he said. “We’re hopeful that the school is back on track to be the great Catholic school on Bayshore it once was.”