Firestorm in Wake of Salt Lake City Vote Continues To Grow
The formation last week of a support and advocacy group for homosexual teachers in Utah capped a series of protests over the Salt Lake City school board's ban on extracurricular clubs.
Hundreds of students walked out of classes Feb. 23 and marched to the state Capitol to protest the board's decision to ban all such clubs rather than allow a support group for gay and lesbian students. Federal law prohibits districts from banning some clubs while allowing others based on their political, religious, or other such character.
Meanwhile, the state legislature last week passed a measure prohibiting school personnel from engaging in or condoning "illegal conduct," which some gay-rights supporters attacked as a direct assault on the rights of homosexuals.
During the protest march on Feb. 23, one student was seriously injured when another demonstrator accidentally ran her over with a car.
"The courage of the young people has given others a lot of courage to do things themselves," said Charlene Orchard, the founder of the Utah Human Rights Coalition. The coalition helped organize a press conference Feb. 27 to announce the formation of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Teachers Alliance.
Though not a member of the alliance, one public school teacher used the press conference to announce that he is a homosexual. Clayton Vetter said that by making such a statement he risked losing his job as an English teacher at Skyline High School in the Granite school district in Salt Lake County.
"I felt that with all of the things I try to instill in my students as far as believing in themselves and in trying to take a stand, I'd be hypocritical if I didn't," Mr. Vetter said in an interview last week.
A Lawsuit Threat
Inside the Statehouse, lawmakers wrapped up their legislative session by passing a bill introduced by Sen. Craig Taylor, a Republican, that would restrict employees at public schools from acting "to encourage, condone, or support engaging in illegal conduct."
The bill, which passed 18-8 in the Senate and 49-18 in the House, would apply this restriction to private conduct as well if "that action results in a material or substantial interference or disruption in the normal activities of the school."
House Speaker Melvin R. Brown, a Republican and former teacher, supported the bill. "When a teacher, like a legislator, becomes a public figure, then I believe they have a responsibility to respect the value system of the community that hires them," he said in an interview.
Ms. Orchard and other gay-rights supporters said the bill, if signed into law, could be used to fire a teacher such as Mr. Vetter who openly admitted being gay.
"It doesn't say the word 'gay,' but since sodomy is against the law in Utah, it is a club they can use to fire us at any point," said Doug Wortham, the chairman of the new alliance. Mr. Wortham teaches French at Rowland Hall-St. Mark's, a private high school in Salt Lake City.
Rep. Christine R. Fox, a Republican who voted for the bill, defended the measure.
"No one wants to say we're going to regulate the private lives of teachers," she said, "but I think it is appropriate if their actions impact on what's going on in the classroom."
Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, also a Republican, was out of the state late last week and it was unclear whether he would sign the bill.
Ms. Orchard said gay-rights activists would challenge any attempt to enforce the measure if it becomes law.
A related bill failed to reach a House vote by the time lawmakers adjourned last week. Also introduced by Sen. Taylor, it would have required students to obtain permission from their parents before participating in school organizations.
Critics said the intent was to allow schools to thwart creation of support groups for gay and lesbian students without violating the federal Equal Access Act. (See story, page 1.)
'An Excellent Teacher'
School administrators in the 75,000-student Granite district, where Mr. Vetter works, said they had no plans to take action.
"At this point in time it has no bearing on his classroom teaching," said Louie Long, the principal at Skyline High. "He's been at the district 12 years and has been an excellent teacher and debate coach."
No other public school teachers were willing to declare their homosexuality at last week's press conference, said Mr. Wortham, who refused to say how many members the group had.
Most of its members, he said, "weren't ready for the trauma of going back to a school where they didn't have the support."