Civil-rights advocates sue Salt Lake schools over rules on student clubs

Friday, March 20, 1998

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Three civil-rights groups have sued the Salt Lake School District over its restrictions on student clubs, again sparking debate over whether gay students should be allowed to form school-sanctioned organizations.


The federal lawsuit, backed by gay-rights advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union, contends the district’s 1996 decision that school clubs must be directly linked to the curriculum is arbitrarily applied and unconstitutional.


The complaint filed March 19 gives new life to a controversy over gay rights in predominantly Mormon Utah’s public schools that has raged since late 1995 when the East High Gay-Straight Alliance tried to organize as a sanctioned group.


As the district moved to thwart gay clubs by banning all “non-curricular” campus organizations, students walked out of classes by the hundreds in protest. At one point, the Utah Legislature considered doing away with all school clubs in order to keep gay students from organizing on campuses.


“This is the only case we know of in the nation where a school has actually taken the ax to many valuable non-curricular clubs just to keep out an alliance of gay and straight students,” said David Buckel, a staff attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York.


Lambda was joined by the ACLU’s Utah and Northern California chapters and the National Center for Lesbian Rights in filing the lawsuit on behalf of the East High Gay-Straight Alliance.


The 23-page lawsuit, also filed on behalf of East High students and alliance members Ivy Fox and Keysha Barnes, charges the district’s ban in practice did not include all non-curricular clubs, and thus violates the Equal Access Act and the Constitution.


Along with the alliance, other clubs affected by the ban range from Young Republicans and Young Democrats to numerous ethnic and recreational clubs. Even Students Against Drunk Driving was cut in order to keep out the alliance, the suit maintains.


“The attempt to form a gay-straight alliance is not unique to Salt Lake. There’s been an increased number of gay-straight alliances throughout the country. They now exist in the hundreds,” said Kelli Evans of the ACLU’s San Francisco office. “We’re seeking to reinforce the importance of public education as a marketplace of ideas.”


The Equal Access Act, a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. that originally aimed to protect student religious activities, requires any public secondary school accepting federal funds to allow all school clubs equal access to its facilities.


The lawsuit, which also names as defendants district superintendent Darline Robles and assistant superintendent Harold Trussel, says the genesis of the dispute was a previous gay-straight alliance’s efforts to organize at East High in December 1995.


Rather than grant permission, the district’s board voted Feb. 20, 1996, to prohibit all groups “not directly related to the curriculum.”


As a result, 46 clubs previously recognized were terminated. As students protested, conservative lawmakers and anti-gay groups charged the clubs were being used to corrupt students and lure them into gay lifestyles.


Gay clubs were the topic of a secret caucus of state senators during the 1996 Legislature, a meeting that brought an ACLU lawsuit charging lawmakers had violated the state’s open meetings act. A year later the Senate settled, admitting it broke the law and paying $10,000 in ACLU legal bills.


“The 46 clubs that were destroyed and the Gay-Straight Alliance mattered,” Fox said in a statement to reporters at an afternoon news conference at ACLU headquarters. “We are no longer going to stand for these unjust situations.”


Barnes, a 16-year-old junior, sat beside Fox, a 16-year-old sophomore, but did not issue a statement. Neither of the girls would take questions.


The March 19 lawsuit attacked the district’s enforcement of the ban, noting that it has allowed the Future Business Leaders of America and Future Homemakers of America as sanctioned clubs even though they were not directly linked to the curriculum.


In a statement, district spokeswoman Sherri Clark defended the policy, saying that the State Office of Education had specifically declared both the FBLA and FHA to be part of Utah’s Applied Technology Education curriculum.


She also noted the school board has “made possible for nonprofit organizations to rent school facilities for a nominal charge.”


East High’s current Gay-Straight Alliance has been allowed to meet after school hours under that arrangement, but civil-liberties attorneys stressed Thursday they still do not enjoy the privileges extended to sanctioned clubs–such as being able to use the school’s bulletin boards and public-address system to announce activities.


Carol Gnade, executive director of the ACLU’s Utah office, said the decision to file suit came after it became clear the district had no intention of budging on its policy. She also said civil-rights attorneys delayed in hopes controversy over gay clubs would subside, and because they were concerned about possible retaliation against alliance members.


The lawsuit also alleges the district’s policy violates both students’ rights to freedom of speech and association, due process and equal protection. It seeks temporary and permanent injunctions against the district’s policy and payment of compensatory damages and legal fees.