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Gay-Rights Ruling Seen Holding Wide Implications for Education

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Washington

In a big victory for gay rights, the U.S. Supreme Court last week struck down a Colorado constitutional amendment that invalidated state and local legal protections for homosexuals.

The 1992 ballot measure, known as Amendment 2, barred the state government, cities, and school districts from enforcing laws or policies protecting homosexuals from discrimination. It was backed by 53 percent of the state's electorate.

The court's 6-3 ruling said the measure classified homosexuals in a way that made them "unequal to everyone else" and thus violated the guarantee of equal protection of the law in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Amendment 2 "identifies persons by a single trait and then denies them protection across the board," said the majority ruling by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in Romer v. Evans (Case No. 94-1039). "It is not within our constitutional tradition to enact laws of this sort."

Amendment 2 was opposed by teachers' unions and many educators in Colorado. The Boulder, Colo., school district, one of a growing number of districts nationwide to include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, joined with several gay citizens and the cities of Aspen, Boulder, and Denver in challenging the amendment in court.

Shifting Battle Front

The May 20 decision seems destined to hold wider implications for education, as school districts become a leading battleground in the debate over gay rights.

The National Education Association issued a statement in the wake of the ruling calling for more districts and higher education institutions to adopt anti-discrimination policies, particularly for students.

"Schools and universities have an obligation to ensure that all students, regardless of sexual orientation, are provided with a safe school environment free of harassment, intimidation, and discrimination," said a written statement from the union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

Kevin Jennings, the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Teachers Network, a New York City-based support group for educators, said the ruling sends a message to gay students in Colorado that "they can grow up in their state and not worry about who they are."

"It doesn't mean we're now going to enter a new dawn of tolerance for all people," Mr. Jennings said. "It just means the battle front is going to shift."

Opponents of gay-rights measures said the ruling unnecessarily trammeled on a democratic decision rooted in moral opposition to homosexuality.

"Homosexuals may win laws providing themselves with special rights, and Americans who disagree may not pass any laws to the contrary," Gary L. Bauer, the president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, said in a statement. "No other group has that kind of power to impose its agenda on the rest of the people."

Amendment 2 was proposed by a Colorado Springs-based group called Colorado for Family Values. Once passed, it was defended by state officials as a valid limitation on the power of local governments in a particular area.

'Culture Wars'

Justice Kennedy's opinion was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a stinging dissent, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas.

He castigated the majority for taking "sides in the culture wars," referring to controversy "over such matters as the introduction into local schools of books teaching that homosexuality is an optional and fully acceptable 'alternate lifestyle.'"

"Today's opinion has no foundation in American constitutional law, and barely pretends to," Justice Scalia said. "The people of Colorado have adopted an entirely reasonable provision which does not even disfavor homosexuals in any substantive sense, but merely denies them preferential treatment."

But Justice Kennedy rejected the idea that extending protection from discrimination to homosexuals represents a "special right."

"We find nothing special in the protections Amendment 2 withholds," he said. "These are protections taken for granted by most people either because they already have them or do not need them."

Other Action

In separate action last week, the Supreme Court:

  • Rejected an appeal from an Arizona school district in a workers' compensation case. State courts rejected efforts by the Amphitheater school district and its insurance company to recover $75,000 awarded by a jury to a custodian injured in a school accident. The high court declined without comment to hear Amphitheater Public Schools v. Aitken (No. 95-1484).
  • Ordered a federal appeals court to reconsider Baltimore's ban on billboard advertising for alcoholic beverages in light of the high court's recent ruling that struck down Rhode Island's ban on liquor-price advertising. Baltimore adopted the ban in 1994 to battle underage drinking. The brewer Anheuser-Busch Inc. and a billboard-advertising firm challenged the ban as an infringement of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. The appeal was Anheuser-Busch v. Schmoke (No. 95-685).

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