Legislation awaiting Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s signature could make the state the first in the nation to require parental permission for students to participate in school-sponsored clubs and organizations—a measure that opponents say is intended to prevent students from joining gay-straight clubs in schools.
Although similar policies already exist at the district level in various places nationwide—including in all of Utah’s 40 school districts—a similar bill recently failed in Virginia, and Utah’s measure already faces criticism from groups that both support and oppose gay-straight alliances.
Eliza Byard, the executive director of the New York City-based Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, characterizes parental-consent laws as “a system to scare kids away from gay-straight alliances,” saying that some students may be inhibited from joining such a club if required to get their parents’ permission in advance.
Requiring parental permission also concerns Joe Glover, the president of the Family Policy Network, a Washington-based Christian advocacy organization that opposes gay-straight clubs and has lobbied against them in several states.
Though the Family Policy Network last year announced that it would campaign for parental-permission provisions in five states, not including Utah, Mr. Glover said that the group since has rethought its position. He is concerned that requiring parental consent could result in students’ choosing not to join a variety of school clubs—including religious groups that his organization supports.
“We’re actually concerned about Utah reaching too far,” he said. “We did favor permission slips, but we’re not so sure about that anymore.”
The Utah legislation is intended to impose additional guidelines on student organizations without violating the Equal Access Act, the 1984 federal law that bars districts from singling out groups such as religious clubs for exclusion from high school campuses. It would do so by adding to current state regulations that let parents, acting on behalf of their children, opt out of participating in certain groups.
Will Carlson, the policy and strategy coordinator for Equality Utah, a Salt Lake City-based gay-rights organization, noted every district in the state already has some form of permission-slip requirement in place. Fourteen gay-straight alliances are registered with Equality Utah, he said, although other groups that aren’t registered may exist as well.
His organization maintains that no legislation on student clubs was necessary, but is pleased that gay-straight alliances are still an option for Utah students.
As of late last week, Gov. Huntsman’s office had not indicated whether the governor, a Republican, would sign the bill. He will have 10 days to do so once it reaches his desk.
The current bill is the seventh version of the original legislation, which was debated over a period of 3½ weeks—a measure of just how controversial such proposals can be.
In addition to the bill defeated in Virginia this year, a parental-consent bill last year failed in the Georgia legislature, where lawmakers eventually settled on a law that requires schools to notify parents about all extracurricular clubs.
The Family Policy Network now supports legislation that specifies how schools notify parents about curricular and extracurricular clubs, which the Georgia law does not do, and allows parents to opt their children out of activities.
“We just want parents to sit down and talk to [their kids] about what’s happening at their schools,” Mr. Glover said.
Supporters of the Utah bill argue that the aim of the parental-consent regulation is to make sure that parents know what their children are exposed to in school, not to shut down specific groups.
“We’re just responding, as a state, to what we can do to preserve parental rights,” Rep. Aaron Tilton, a Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, said on the House floor last month.
But the bill’s links to sentiments against pro-gay clubs are no secret.
“I’ve been on the record to say that gay clubs don’t belong in schools because I believe they’re a place of indoctrination,” Sen. D. Chris Buttars, the bill’s co-sponsor, said on the Senate floor last month.
A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Utah Poised for Parental Sign-Off on Club Activities