Gay-straight club can meet at Fla. high school

Thursday, July 31, 2008

MIAMI — A school district in rural Florida must allow a Gay-Straight Alliance to meet on campus and must provide for the well-being of gay and straight students, a federal judge has ruled.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a First Amendment lawsuit on behalf of Okeechobee High School senior Yasmin Gonzalez in 2006 after the principal said the club could not meet on campus. The school gave various arguments, claiming first that there were too many clubs, and later that the school had an abstinence-only policy.

In his July 29 ruling, Gonzales v. School Board of Okeechobee County, U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore said that the school board had failed to show that barring the club's “tolerance based message” was based on anything but a “desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness of tolerating a minority of students whose sexual identity is distinct from the majority of students and discordant to [the district’s] abstinence only program.”

Moore added: “Ensuring that this minority of students are afforded meaningful expression secures the precept of freedom from external dominion over thought and expression exalted by the founders and safeguarded by the First Amendment.”

The school district “argued everything from the old standby that gay people are child molesters to the argument that talking about being gay might turn straight students gay,” said Robert Rosenwald, lead counsel on the case for the Florida ACLU. “Thankfully, the court saw through this and agreed with us.”

Barbara Weller, an attorney for the school board, said the school never had a problem with the club promoting tolerance, but did want “to restrict club discussions of sexual issues that the school is concerned could lead to premature sexualization and risky sexual experimentation on the part of students.”

Last week, another federal judge in Florida said a Panhandle principal led a “relentless crusade” against gay and lesbian students at Ponce de Leon High School and violated students’ First Amendment rights by trying to prevent them from wearing gay-pride clothing, stickers and buttons.

Gonzalez, who now attends Indian River Community College, has said she was plagued by discrimination as a lesbian trying to find her way amid Okeechobee's small-town conservative values. One teacher told her homosexuals should die; kids hanging out the bus window would shout, “Are you the one that's gay?”

Her lawsuit cited the 1984 federal Equal Access Act, which was initially pushed by evangelical Christians after some public schools banned after-school prayer meetings and other religious gatherings. The law says that if a public school allows any extracurricular groups to meet on campus it must allow all groups to do the same.

Moore agreed that the district had violated the Equal Access Act by barring the gay-straight club.

“You shouldn't have to grow up feeling like you're alone,” Gonzalez said when the suit was filed. “It was just terrible. I saw that something was wrong and I'm trying to change it.”

Five students attended the Okeechobee club's most recent meeting in June, but as many as 20 have attended other meetings.

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