Students who have formed a Gay- Straight Alliance Club at El Modena High School in Orange County and are being denied the right to meet are filing a lawsuit against Orange Unified School District officials. The students, who see the club as a way to promote understanding and respect, say the school district's months-long delay in approving the club has effectively denied them the right to meet this semester.
"These kids don't want anything out of the ordinary. They just want their club to be treated like the other clubs at El Modena High," said People For the American Way Foundation president Carole Shields. The students are being represented by attorneys with PFAWF, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Irell & Manella, a leading California law firm with offices in Los Angeles and Orange County.
From Lambda's Western Regional Office in Los Angeles, Staff Attorney Myron Quon said, "El Modena students should be commended for organizing a gay-straight alliance to encourage respect and fairness at their school. A school board that blocks them not only is setting a bad example&endash;it is breaking the law. The students' lawsuit, like their GSA organizing effort, is a courageous move for equality."
The federal lawsuit alleges that the school board is violating the students' rights to free speech and equal protection under the United States and California constitutions. The lawsuit further claims that the school is violating their rights under the federal Equal Access Act, which prohibits school districts from discriminating among student-initiated after-school clubs because of the political, philosophical, religious or other viewpoints expressed at club meetings.
Even the school board's own policy states: "The board shall not discriminate or deny access to any student initiated group on the basis of religious, political, philosophical or any other content to be addressed at such meetings."
After school officials repeatedly refused permission for the students to meet all semester, the students again asked on November 19. The school district responded by saying that it needed more time to review the application and raised misleading questions about whether the Gay-Straight Alliance should be categorized as a curricular or noncurricular club.
"This shows that the school officials will go to extreme lengths to deny these kids their rights, even creating a phony Catch 22," said Kendra Huard, Acting Director of PFAWF's California Office.
The students claim that the club is being denied the rights and privileges that other clubs at the school enjoy. Fifty students have expressed interest in joining the club despite, for example, the school principal's forbidding the Gay-Straight Alliance from setting up a table or hanging a banner at "Club Rush," a one-day informational fair about student clubs held in the school quad in early October.
The students first applied to meet after school in September. Although approval normally occurs at the school level, the high school did not allow the students to meet and passed the matter on to the school board. On November 9, the school board held a "public forum" to hear "pro" and "con" views about the club, at which time the students were subjected to hostility and derision. On November 18, rather than approve the club, as it must under federal law, the board put off a vote once again, at least until December.
PFAWF, Lambda and Irell & Manella are submitting the students' claim in Anthony Colin, et al. v. Orange Unified School District, et. al in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, Southern Division. A copy of the complaint will be available from this press release at www.pfaw.org/news when it is filed.