All Or Nothing

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Instead of giving a gay student group access to one of its high schools, the Salt Lake City school board took draconian measures in February, voting to eliminate all extracurricular clubs at the school beginning next fall.

Board members said they were constrained by the Equal Access Act to either recognize the proposed Gay-Straight Alliance at the city's East High School or eliminate all clubs that were not curriculum-related. The 1984 federal law prohibits districts that allow some clubs from banning others for religious or political reasons.

At least two board members said they voted with the majority on February 20 not because of opposition to the gay student group but to protest their lack of authority to limit controversial clubs. "This is not a hateful vote,'' said D. Kent Michie, who voted to eliminate clubs. "Congress and the Supreme Court have left all school boards in this country in a box--you either allow all clubs of any type, no matter how controversial, or you deny all non-curricular clubs.''

Karen Derrick, another board member who voted for the ban, said she is not opposed to providing support services to gay students but believes the board should have latitude over clubs. Such a controversy would not arise over "a Chinese-checkers club,'' she said. "But this was more sensitive. Unfortunately, it gets perceived nationally that we are intolerant.''

Clifford Higbee, the board member who proposed the measure, said at the board meeting that he objected to a gay student group on moral grounds. "I don't believe our young people should be placed in a position to deal with these kinds of issues,'' he told a local newspaper.

Board President Mary Jo Rasmussen, who voted against the measure, said the gay alliance would be appropriate to serve the emotional and educational needs of students. "We have a philosophy that we will strive to meet the needs of all students,'' she said.

As a result of the board's vote, a number of school groups will be eliminated, including the Key Club, Students Against Drunk Driving, the Young Democrats, the Young Republicans, and the Young Poets Society. "When you look at all of the clubs that we are going to disallow,'' Rasmussen said, "you are gutting the very heart of our secondary schools.''

The debate in Salt Lake City began in December when students from East High School, one of three high schools in the 25,000-student district, sought to form a gay group on campus. Administrators referred the request to the school board, which had to contend with the Equal Access Act.

In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools vs. Mergens, interpreted that federal law for schools. The high court ruled 8-1 that the law applied to any secondary school that had clubs that were not related directly to the curriculum. A public school that allowed non-curriculum-related clubs, such as a chess club or a scuba-diving club, created a so-called "limited public forum,'' the court said, and thus could not discriminate against a student group based on that group's speech.

Three days after the Salt Lake City vote, hundreds of students walked out of school in protest and marched to the state capitol. And several days later, the Utah Human Rights Coalition announced the formation of an advocacy group called the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Teachers Alliance.

Meanwhile, the state legislature passed a measure prohibiting school personnel from engaging in or condoning "illegal activity.'' Some gay-rights supporters attacked the measure as a direct assault on the rights of homosexuals. "It doesn't say the word 'gay,' but since sodomy is against the law in Utah, it is a club they can use to fire us at any point,'' said Doug Wortham, a French teacher at a private high school in Salt Lake City and chairman of the new alliance for gay and lesbian teachers.

Rep. Christine Fox, a Republican who voted for the bill, defended the measure. "No one wants to say we're going to regulate the private lives of teachers,'' she said, "but I think it is appropriate if their actions impact on what's going on in the classroom.''

--Jeff Archer and Mark Walsh

Vol. 07, Issue 07, Page 1-24

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