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Court To Weigh Colo. Anti-Gay-Rights Law

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Washington

When Colorado voters approved a 1992 ballot measure that prohibits enactment of any law or policy protecting homosexuals from discrimination, Tracy Pharris began getting worried telephone calls.

"I heard from three teachers who said they were not going to renew their contracts, and I received several suicide calls," said Mr. Pharris, a middle school teacher in the Denver suburb of Lakewood and an officer of Gay and Lesbian Educators of Colorado, a support group.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Oct. 10 in a case that will determine the fate of Amendment 2, as the Colorado measure is known--and possibly the professional future of homosexual teachers.

As the High Court convenes this week for its new term, the Colorado case, Romer v. Evans (Case No. 94-1039), is one of only two cases on the docket so far that have implications for education. (See related story, page 22.)

The Colorado amendment would nullify anti-discrimination laws in the cities of Denver, Boulder, and Aspen. But the measure would also have other important implications for public schools, observers say.

Indeed, the Colorado case comes at a time when schools are increasingly finding themselves part of the national debate over gay rights. A congressional committee has scheduled a hearing next week that will examine whether homosexuality is being "promoted" in the public schools.

Amendment 2, which passed with 53.4 percent of the vote following a heated campaign, bars the state and its political subdivisions, including school districts, from making "homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation" the basis for any protection from discrimination.

Court Challenge

The Colorado Education Association and other education groups unsuccessfully opposed the measure, which was drafted by a Colorado Springs-based organization called Colorado for Family Values.

After Amendment 2 passed, it was quickly challenged in court by several gay residents, as well as the cities of Aspen, Boulder, and Denver. Organizers of the challenge asked the Boulder Valley school district to sign on as a plaintiff, which it did after a unanimous vote by the school board.

The plaintiffs argue that Amendment 2 singles out one group of people and bars them from seeking state or local government protection from discrimination. Thus, they contend, the measure deprives the group of the right to participate equally in the political process. The Colorado courts essentially agreed.

The state of Colorado will defend the amendment before the High Court. It argues that in overturning the measure the state supreme court improperly created a new group right: "not to be fenced out from unfettered political participation at all levels of government." The state argues that it should be able to limit the authority of local governments in a particular area.

"Nothing in Amendment 2 deprives anyone of a right to vote," the state argues in court papers. "Amendment 2 merely reserves to the people the issue of special protections for homosexuals and bisexuals."

Kevin Tebedo, the founder of Colorado for Family Values, says that Amendment 2 would do nothing more than "prohibit the behavior of homosexuals from being legally recognized as being the same as someone's arbitrary skin color."

But Mr. Tebedo--who said the National Education Association is "an arm of the homosexual political lobby"--also expressed antipathy toward homosexuals, contending that schools should actively discourage homosexuality.

The Boulder Valley district has included sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy for several years, and recently strengthened it, said Dean F. Damon, the superintendent. He added that there have been only a handful of instances in which the policy has been invoked, and it has not been the subject of any lawsuits.

Boulder's Policy

A few other Colorado districts--including his--cover sexual orientation in nondiscrimination clauses in teacher contracts, said Mr. Pharris, who is also the co-chairman of the Colorado chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Teachers Network.

The network is a New York City-based association of educators, both gay and heterosexual, that promotes tolerance for gay teachers and students. Kevin Jennings, its executive director, said nondiscrimination policies are important because gay teachers are a frequent target of attack from religious conservatives.

"Of all gay professionals, gay teachers are the single most vulnerable," he said. "Teachers are terrified of coming out of the closet."

Mr. Jennings said he does not know how many school districts nationwide have added sexual orientation to their anti-discrimination policies for employees or students. Officials at the National School Boards Association said they know that a growing number of districts have done so, but they do not know how many.

Effect on Gay Students

A number of major education groups have filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief in the High Court case, arguing that Amendment 2 is not merely a threat to anti-bias policies, but would also "chill the efforts of public schools to meet the needs of gay and lesbian students" and hamper their efforts to teach "tolerance and respect for those who are different."

"Through Amendment 2, the state officially sanctions discrimination against certain of its citizens, just as surely as did the anti-Semitic laws of Nazi Germany or the Jim Crow legislation of an earlier period in this country," argues the brief, which was signed by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and the Council of the Great City Schools, among others.

"What message does [Amendment 2] give to gay and lesbian students?" asked Bonnie Cullison, a teacher in Montgomery County, Md., who is the co-chair of the nea's Gay and Lesbian Caucus. "To me, the message it sends is that it's OK to be prejudiced against [you]. The world is telling you that you are bad."

To Mr. Tebedo, there would be nothing wrong with that message.

"I hope [Amendment 2] does hamper [educators'] ability to make homosexual students feel comfortable about their homosexuality. They shouldn't become comfortable with it," he said.

Teachers need to show more respect for the views of straight students, Mr. Tebedo added. "They're telling straight students who don't like homosexuals that they are homophobes and Neanderthal," he said.

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