SALT LAKE CITY -- Saying that no court should "legitimize" prejudice, a federal district judge said that school officials acted illegally in preventing a teacher from telling anyone that she is a lesbian and firing her as coach of the girls' volleyball team, the American Civil Liberties Union announced Nov. 30.
The decision came in a case brought by the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project and the ACLU's Utah affiliate on behalf of Wendy Weaver, a 17-year psychology and physical education teacher at Spanish Fork High School, who coached the girls' volleyball team to four state championships.
In a region that is considered to be one of the most conservative in the country, U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins condemned the school's actions in the strongest possible terms. "Although the Constitution cannot control prejudices," Judge Jenkins wrote, " neither this court nor any other court, should, directly or indirectly, legitimize them."
The ACLU's lawsuit charged -- and the court agreed -- that officials at Spanish Fork High School and at the Nebo School District violated Weaver's rights to free speech and equal protection guaranteed by the United States Constitution.
The school's actions violated Weaver's right to free speech, the court found, because she was singled out for disciplinary action for discussing her sexual orientation, while no similar restriction was placed on heterosexual teachers. Dismissing Weaver as a coach, Judge Jenkins wrote, also violated her right to equal protection of the law because it would illegitimately indulge "the private antipathy of some members of a community."
In his ruling, Judge Jenkins noted Weaver's "unblemished" reputation as an educator and said "it is undisputed that she was an excellent coach."
"This case was not about what was said in a classroom or about Wendy Weaver's effectiveness as a teacher or coach," said Jennifer Middleton, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "It was about the District objecting to Weaver's positive example as a successful member of the school community who also happened to be a lesbian."
"The court understood," Middleton added, "that teachers, like anybody else, have the right to be honest and up front to members of their community about who they are."
In addition to finding that the District violated Weaver's constitutional rights, the court ordered school officials to remove memos of reprimand from her personnel file, to offer Weaver the volleyball coaching position for the 1999-2000 school year, and to pay damages in the amount of $1,500 -- what Weaver would have earned as coach.
Matthew Coles, Director of the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, said the ruling was "the best decision in a case involving gay teachers that we have ever had."
"The argument the school district made here is one that's been made in almost every case involving lesbian and gay teachers," Coles said. "The district said that when teachers say they are gay, the statement is about sex, but when heterosexual teachers talk about spouses or dates, the subject is relationships. This judge understood that these statements really are parallel, and both are about family, friendships and intimacy."
Attorneys in the case are Coles and Middleton of the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, Stephen C. Clark of the ACLU of Utah, and David B. Watkiss, a Salt Lake City attorney in private practice.