SALT LAKE CITY -- After nearly nine hours of gut-wrenching debate, Utah legislatures voted late April 17 to pass a controversial bill designed to bar lesbian and gay student clubs while allowing other groups to form. Gov. Mike Leavitt, who helped craft the measure, is almost certain to sign it.
The American Civil Liberties Union expressed outrage with the vote, and vowed to bring a legal challenge under the Equal Access Act and the other grounds the moment the measure is enforced.
"This is a legislative form of gay bashing," said Carol Gnade, Executive Director of the ACLU of Utah. "It boggles the mind that the Utah legislature feels so threatened by a group of students whose only goal is a forum for open discussion. Now we have an adopted bill that is written so broadly that it is anyone's guess which groups are safe from being banned."
The measure, which passed by overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate, gives school boards the authority to ban any student club they see as promoting bigotry, encouraging criminal behavior, or involving human sexuality. It also allows boards to require students to get parental consent before joining any club.
The controversy which led to the legislation began in February when the Salt Lake City school voted to ban all student clubs at East Side High School rather than allow a gay and straight alliance club to form. The decision was required under the Federal Equal Access Act of 1984, which was originally supported by conservative lawmakers who wanted to ensure that Bible-study groups had equal access to school facilities for extracurricular activities.
State lawmakers then seized the issue and began holding closed-door meetings to craft legislation that would sidestep the equal access law and allow the school board to lift its blanket ban on all student groups, while keeping the ban on the gay-straight alliance group.
"This law clearly violates the federal equal access law and the Constitution," Gnade said. "Not only does it violate the rights of lesbian, gay and straight students, but everyone associated with a Utah high school, including teachers, administrators and volunteers. The ACLU and other groups will challenge the bill the moment it is used to deny someone their liberties."
In another attempt to single out gay students, the Salt Lake City School Board announced this morning that it has decided to ban groups which it deems non-curricular, and allow only groups that are related to the state's core curriculum. The equal access law only applies to non-curricular clubs.
Among the groups banned by the Salt Lake City school board are Black Student Club, the Students Against Drunk Driving, the Utah Frisbee club and the Socialists Club. The clubs determined to be related to the state's curriculum include the Cheerleading Club, Football, Student Government, and the Future Homemakers of America.