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News - July 1996

Merrimack challenge to anti-gay policy dismissed

The parents and teachers who had sued Merrimack School District in the first federal constitutional challenge to a public school district's anti-gay curriculum policy celebrated their voluntary dismissal of the suit June 12, before any court ruling had occurred, thanks to an electoral victory that promptly brought an end to the censorship policy. At a press conference held in Merrimack this afternoon, the plaintiffs and their lawyers happily announced the decision to withdraw their First Amendment case.

"Now our schools can go back to the business of providing a quality education," said Susan Ruggeri, President of the Merrimack Teachers Association, a plaintiff in the suit. "The policy that has silenced and confused our teachers has been lifted in the best possible way: by the citizens of Merrimack and the school board itself repudiating interference with our kids' freedom to learn."

All the plaintiff parents and teachers agreed to the voluntary dismissal of the law suit, now that the policy's repeal, on June 3, 1996, has made it unnecessary. "There is no reason to press the federal court to examine the actions of a local school district unless serious constitutional violations require judicial intervention," emphasized Claire Ebel, Executive Director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, one of the organizations that provided lawyers for the case. "Such serious violations were at stake when Merrimack had its anti-gay censorship policy, but the newly-elected board has acted quickly to correct those violations."

"The resolution of this controversy should chasten 'stealth' political activists from the extreme, repressive right," said Mary L. Bonauto, lead counsel on the case, from New England's Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. "Once local parents realize the nature of the policies those extremists advocate -- policies that, like the one we challenged, effectively require the censorship of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and films about Walt Whitman -- most parents will reject such attempts to limit and manipulate their children's education."

The suit had challenged Merrimack's Policy 6540, which prohibited "any program or activity that has the purpose or effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative."

That policy, adopted in August 1995, required teachers to drop teaching materials and exercises they had used in prior years, and to police their classrooms to ensure that only negative references to homosexuality occurred there. Guidance counselors were also bound by the anti-gay edict, and were thus prevented from appropriately helping some students.

The parents and teachers filed the case on February 15, 1996, urging the federal district court in Concord, New Hampshire, to strike down the policy because it interfered with students' First Amendment right to receive information and cast an impermissible "pall of orthodoxy" over Merrimack's schools.

The policy was a key issue in Merrimack's school board election on May 15, 1996. In that election, voters rejected such an approach and elected a board majority that had pledged to repeal Policy 6540.

The newly elected board began the process of repeal immediately. With the final vote for repeal on June 3, the board also enacted a new, sexual orientation-neutral policy that states that the district "shall have no program or activity which is intended to promote sexual activity or any sexual orientation."

"We have preserved our right to reinstate a law suit, should the Merrimack schools again resort to anti-gay censorship," said Ruth E. Harlow of the American Civil Liberties Union, another lawyer for the plaintiffs. "But we have every confidence that the newly elected board will see to it that the First Amendment is not again sacrificed in Merrimack. The new board provides a great example for local officials dealing with anti-gay curriculum proposals nationwide: protect access to unbiased information in the schools and stay out of legal trouble."

In addition to Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the NHCLU, and the national ACLU, the plaintiffs were represented by People for the American Way.

People for the American Way President Carole Shields echoed the important signal that Merrimack citizens have sent nationally: "The Merrimack election results are consistent with the national trend; when voters are confronted with the real goals of the Religious Right, they vote for mainstream candidates instead. Merrimack residents don't want their schools to be used as a forum for the Religious Right's political agenda any more than did the voters who rejected the Religious Right in Vista, California, or Round Rock, Texas, or New York City."

Daniel O'Donnell, one of the parent plaintiffs, expressed the feelings they all shared, "We are glad to have the dispute behind us. The law suit was a last resort to remove this policy that had distorted education for our children. Now that election efforts have brought an end to the policy, we have no reason to sue the district."


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