Ruling gives equal access to gay rights group at Maple Grove high

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Osseo school district must give a student-run gay rights group at Maple Grove Senior High the same privileges it offers other extracurricular clubs, such as the use of school rooms for meetings, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen issued a permanent injunction that puts the group Straights and Gays for Equality, also known as SAGE, on equal footing as other groups.

Two students, their parents and SAGE sued Osseo Area Schools in 2005, claiming the Twins Cities suburban district violated the federal Equal Access Act, which holds that public schools must extend the same privileges to all student-organized, non-curricular clubs.

SAGE contended that groups including synchronized swimming, cheerleading, and the Black Achievers were allowed to publicize meetings over the school's public address system and have access to school facilities for meetings, but members of SAGE were consistently denied such requests.

The school district had argued that these groups were given such access because they were labeled as "curricular" — meaning their activities related to the school's curriculum. For example, the school argued, students received academic credit for participating in physical activity like synchronized swimming while the subject of Black Achievers related to classes that promote leadership and positive relationship building.

Ericksen disagreed, saying cheerleading, Black Achievers and other groups were not directly related to any class.

"The District's argument is circular — the District deems certain student groups curricular because it sanctions them, but the District decides which groups to sanction," the judge wrote in a footnote. "This type of decision making is exactly what the Equal Access Act is meant to prohibit."

The school district had classified SAGE as a noncurricular group. Such groups could put up posters only on a community bulletin board and outside their meeting places and were prohibited from using other forms of school communication, according to the 11-page ruling.

Ericksen ordered the school to treat SAGE like any other "curricular" student group when it came to access for meetings, avenues for communication and other rights.

An attorney for the defendants said he was not in a position to comment. A phone message left for a district spokeswoman and an e-mail left for the Maple Grove Senior High principal were not immediately returned Tuesday.

Genevieve Zimmerman and Dave Pinto, attorneys for the student plaintiffs — who have graduated — said the two were "thrilled" with the court ruling. "The students were always after equal access, not special access," Zimmerman said.

SAGE formed at the school during the 2002-2003 school year, the lawsuit said, "to promote tolerance and respect for Maple Grove Senior High School students and faculty through education and activities." While some incidents date to the fall of 2003, SAGE members started to find their requests regularly denied in the 2004-2005 school year.

The two female students who brought the lawsuit graduated in spring 2006. They are named only by their initials in the lawsuit.

The defendants include the school district, the high school, current and past superintendents, the school's principal and the district's school board members.

The ruling solidifies an April 2006 preliminary order that Ericksen issued while the case moved through the court. That preliminary injunction was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

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