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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as District Must Allow Lesbian Teacher To Coach

District Must Allow Lesbian Teacher To Coach

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A federal judge has ruled in favor of a Utah teacher who claimed she was denied a coaching position after her school's administrators learned she is a lesbian.

In his Nov. 25 decision, U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins wrote that the 20,000-student Nebo district violated Wendy Weaver's free-speech rights when it told her not to discuss her sexual orientation. The school also violated the U.S. Constitution's equal-protection guarantee because it did not treat other staff members the same way, he wrote.

"A lot of [gay] people are still afraid about coming out in the school setting, and it may take a while before this makes a difference," said Ms. Weaver, 41. "But I hope it does."

'Don't Tell' Approach

A psychology teacher at the district's Spanish Fork High School, Ms. Weaver said the case began after she gave a truthful answer to a student's question. ("Teacher Sues After District Says She Can't Discuss Her Homosexuality," Nov. 5, 1997.)

In June 1997, while the teacher was recruiting players for the girls' volleyball team she expected to coach that fall, one student asked over the telephone if Ms. Weaver was gay. The teacher responded that she was.

Although she had led the team to four state championships in previous years, Ms. Weaver had not taken the coaching position in 1995 and 1996 because she was pursuing a master's degree in physical education.

After the phone call with the student, administrators told Ms. Weaver she would not be offered the coaching job that year. In a letter, they also warned her not to "make any comments, announcements, or statements" to members of the school community about her sexual orientation. A second letter "strongly encouraged" her not to discuss the issue "at any time with students ... including off-campus contacts."

Concerned that she could lose her job for merely being seen holding hands with her partner off school grounds, she filed the lawsuit against the district last fall.

"I kind of felt like I didn't have a whole lot of choice," said Ms. Weaver, who still teaches at the school in Spanish Fork City, a town located about 10 miles south of Provo.

A 'Matter of Fairness'

Judge Jenkins said the district's actions were not justified by concerns about a "negative reaction" from the community.

"Simple as it may sound, as a matter of fairness and evenhandedness, homosexuals should not be sanctioned or restricted for speech that heterosexuals are not likewise sanctioned or restricted for," wrote the judge, who ordered the school to pay Ms. Weaver the $1,500 stipend she would have earned as a coach and to offer her the position next year.

The ruling implies that educators acting outside their official capacities have much the same rights to free speech as other citizens, said Jay P. Heubert, a professor at both Teachers College and the law school at Columbia University.

"One of the big questions that a lot of these cases raise is when does the teacher take off the mantel of his or her professional role," he said. "There are some people who would argue that anything a teacher says or does anywhere is a reflection on the school and on his or her fitness to serve as a teacher."

The Utah attorney general's office, which defended the district, had not decided last week whether to appeal the ruling.

Kaye Westwood, the president of the district school board, said she was disappointed by the ruling. "I feel that a district should be able to employ a coach at will," she said.

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Page 5

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  • Read the American Civil Liberties Union's statement on the Utah discrimination suit.
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