"Gay/Straight Student Alliance" Fights For Right to Exist
SALT LAKE CITY -- In a lawsuit filed March 19 by four civil rights organizations, a Utah student club called the East High Gay/Straight Alliance challenged discrimination against it by the Salt Lake City Board of Education.
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (lead counsel in the case), the ACLU of Utah, the ACLU of Northern California, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed the suit on the club's behalf in the United States District Court for the District of Utah.
The suit charges that the Board violates the federal Equal Access Act by banning some non-curricular clubs while allowing others to meet. The Equal Access Act prohibits the school from picking and choosing among student clubs. The law requires any public secondary school that accepts federal funding to allow all school clubs equal access to its facilities. The lawsuit further charges that the Board violates the First Amendment and other federal law.
"The school board cannot censure student speech and stop students - including lesbian and gay students and their friends - from organizing clubs just because officials disapprove of those clubs," said Jon W. Davidson, Supervising Attorney at Lambda's Western Regional Office. He added, "Anti-gay bigotry harms young people, and Salt Lake should be proud it has students willing to educate the community and support one another."
According to the lawsuit, the Board violates the Equal Access Act in two ways: by improperly re- classifying some clubs as curricular, such as Future Homemakers of America and Future Business Leaders of America, and also by allowing other clubs, such as the Key Club, to meet unofficially even though they have not been re-classified. Plaintiffs urge the court to order fair treatment of all non- curricular clubs, meaning that the Board cannot ban non- curricular groups, which include, for example, the Black Students Union and Students Against Drunk Driving as well as the Gay/Straight Alliance.
"This is the only case we know of in the nation where a school has actually taken the axe to many valuable non-curricular clubs just to keep out an alliance of gay and straight students," said Lambda Staff Attorney David S. Buckel, who is the editor of a resource guide to defending gay-related student groups under the Equal Access Act.
Said Carole Gnade, Executive Director of the ACLU of Utah, "The Homemakers, the Business Leaders, and the Key Club are each valuable clubs, and we fully support their right to meet. But, if the Board allows these non-curricular clubs to meet, then it must also permit all other appropriate clubs, like the Native American Club, the Latino Pride Club, Young Democrats and Young Republicans, and the plaintiffs' Gay/Straight Alliance."
The East High Gay/Straight Alliance states that its purpose is to: "...increase awareness of diversity in high schools, to decrease prejudice, and to help students feel safe...assist all students in promoting self- esteem...provide a forum for educating members...provide students with a 'hate-free zone' and to discourage homophobia, anti-gay violence, bigotry, and prejudice within the school community and within the city and state." The Alliance is open to members who are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and those who are not certain of their sexual orientation or do not wish it to be known.
In February 1996, soon after some previous East High School students formed a gay and straight coalition and sought to meet at the school, the Board declared a ban on all non-curricular clubs. Schools lawfully can evade the Equal Access Act by disallowing all non-curricular clubs, and only allowing curricular clubs. Plaintiffs assert that the Board has continued to allow some non-curricular clubs to meet.
The lawsuit will turn on the distinction between curricular and non-curricular clubs. Curricular clubs usually are those directly linked to a school's curriculum and are school sponsored and endorsed, such as most french clubs. Non-curricular clubs are independent of school courses and have no school endorsement, such as chess clubs, but student members may use school facilities for meetings and other activities. In 1991, a federal trial court in Washington found that a Future Business Leaders of America club was non-curricular, and in 1993, a federal appellate court in Pennsylvania found that a Key Club was non- curricular.
"When schools play a shell game, misclassifying clubs, they are striking at the core of the Equal Access Act," said NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell. "Under the law, equal access is required whether students want to study the Bible or form an alliance to fight anti-gay bigotry."
In Spring 1996, independent of the Board's policy, but also in response to previous students' efforts in Salt Lake City to form a coalition of gay and straight students for a club, the state legislature passed a law limiting recognition of clubs that include a reference to "human sexuality." The policy challenged in the lawsuit does not rely upon that state law.
"Gay/Straight Alliances are part of a national student trend to address problems with anti-gay bigotry on campuses that schools have ignored" said Kelli M. Evans, staff attorney of the ACLU of Northern California.
Also of counsel in the lawsuit are Salt Lake City private attorneys Marlin G. Criddle and Laura Milliken Gray, and the Los Angeles-based private law firm Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe.