Student Well-Being

Judge’s Approval of Club for Gay Students Leads to Protest

By Mark Walsh — February 16, 2000 2 min read

A club for gay students and their supporters met for the first time last week at El Modena High School in Orange, Calif., just days after a federal judge ordered the local school board to recognize the controversial student group.

More than 50 students attended the meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance in the drama room on Feb. 9, while opponents of the club demonstrated outside the high school with shouts of “Stop gay clubs!”

Some El Modena High students reportedly scuffled with the protesters, shouting at them to “Shut up!” and “Go home!”

In response to the court ruling, the Orange school board last week considered eliminating all non-curriculum-related clubs. But on Feb. 10, the board moved to require written parental permission and a 2.0 grade point average for students to join clubs. Also, all clubs would be prohibited from discussing sexual activity under the proposed policy.

The board’s action was a response to the Feb. 4 ruling by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter of Santa Ana, Calif., who held that the district violated the federal Equal Access Act when officials turned down the request for the Gay-Straight Alliance to meet on the campus of El Modena High.

The federal law requires schools receiving federal aid to treat all non-curriculum-related student groups equally. It was enacted in 1984 with the backing of conservative organizations that argued student Bible clubs and other religious groups were being unconstitutionally barred from schools.

“Board members may be uncomfortable about students discussing sexual orientation and how all students need to accept each other, whether gay or straight,” Judge Carter wrote. But board members “cannot censor the students’ speech to avoid discussions on campus that cause them discomfort or represent an unpopular viewpoint.”

Jon W. Davidson, a lawyer with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which helped represent the club, said he was “delighted” with the ruling. “The judge agreed with us on nearly every legal point we raised,” he said.

Unanimous Vote

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, a New York City-based support and lobbying group for homosexual educators and students, said there are about 700 clubs for gay students across the country.

The El Modena alliance’s mission statement says its goal is “to raise public awareness and promote tolerance by providing a safe forum for discussion of issues related to sexual orientation and homophobia.”

But the board of the 31,000-student district in Orange County voted 7-0 in December to deny the group’s application.

“To us, it would be sanctioning a club for discussing sexual issues,” board President Linda Davis said in an interview.

The backers of the club are part of a “movement to have the homosexual lifestyle promoted and accepted,” she said.

After the board’s December vote, club members sued in federal district court under the Equal Access Act.

Judge Carter rejected the district’s argument that the club was not subject to the act because the group’s subject matter was related to the district’s sex education curriculum.

He also ruled the board could not force a compromise plan in which the group would be called the Tolerance Club and prohibited from discussing sex education.

“The board’s suggested name change clearly infringes on profound expressive meaning that the group attaches to its name,” the judge said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2000 edition of Education Week as Judge’s Approval of Club for Gay Students Leads to Protest

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