Appeals court strikes down law barring gay student groups

ATLANTA -- In a ringing victory for the rights of gay students, a unanimous federal appeals court struck down an Alabama law that sought to keep lesbian, gay and bisexual student groups off university campuses, saying the law violated the First Amendment rights of students and is wholly unenforceable.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the challenge, said the decision by a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sends a clear message that states may not keep lesbian and gay students from meeting and talking on campuses.

"This decision affirms the right of lesbian and gay students to meet and discuss their common interests like everyone else," said Matt Coles, director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, who argued the case in January. "Colleges should be a place of open discourse and equal opportunity. This law contradicted that purpose, and sought to exclude lesbian and gay students from the fabric of campus life."

"This ruling should spell an end to efforts by anti-gay extremists to discriminate against lesbian and gay students on college campuses," Coles added.

Recognizing that "facial invalidation of a statute is strong medicine," the federal appeals court nonetheless ruled that the Alabama law violates the First Amendment on its face, saying it "would have to ignore the Supreme Court's instructions and rewrite the statute for it to pass constitutional muster."

The decision, handed down late yesterday, was written by Judge Joel F. Dubina and joined by Judges Susan H. Black and William C. O'Kelley. Attorneys for Alabama announced they will not appeal the ruling.

The contested statute, Section 16-1-28 of the Alabama's Education Code, sought to bar "any college or university from spending public funds or using public facilities ... to sanction, recognize, or support any group that promotes a lifestyle or actions prohibited by the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws" of the state.

The law swept through the Alabama legislature in 1992 after officials at Auburn University granted official recognition to a gay student group there. The ACLU brought its challenge when the state invoked the recently enacted law against the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Alliance at the University of South Alabama, a state-run college in Mobile.

The alliance had sought official recognition from the university in order to further its mission to create a supportive environment for gay, lesbian and bisexual students, as well as to foster discussion about homophobia and AIDS prevention.

The ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project is joined in the case by the ACLU of Alabama, with Fern Singer of Birmingham serving as its cooperating attorney. 

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