The Federal Equal Access Act
1990 to 2006: schools attempting to circumvent
and prohibit Gay-Straight Alliances and
controversial student groups.
Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) are student-led clubs that have been organized in high schools to reduce homophobia, physical abuse, and bullying of sexual minorities among students. Such clubs -- probably more than any other type of student group -- have met resistance from high schools and local school boards who fear negative reactions from social and religious conservatives in the community. The American
Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said:
"Federal courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of GSA's where schools
tried to block their formation, upholding students' right to form the groups
in Salt Lake City, Utah; Orange County, California; Franklin Township,
Indiana; Boyd County, Kentucky and Osseo, Minnesota." 8
Each court decision that supported students' rights to create Gay-Straight
Alliances and other controversial student non-curricular groups made subsequent court cases
less likely to be filed. By 2014, these conflicts have been greatly reduced.
A sampling of attempts to circumvent the
equal access law:
||1990 -Nebraska: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case
"Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens,"
that the Equal Access Act is constitutional. 1 The
Board attempted to deny official recognition to a Christian Bible
study, prayer and fellowship club. Although the school already had
recognized a chess club, a scuba diving club, and a service club, it
claimed that these three groups were all directly related to the
school curriculum. The chess club taught logic which they considered
to be an extension of mathematics courses; the scuba diving club was
related to the physical education program; the service club involved
students working with special education classes. The court decided
otherwise. They ruled that Subsurfers, a scuba diving club,
qualified as a "non-curriculum related student group"
"its subject matter is not taught in any regularly
offered course; it does not directly relate to the curriculum as a
whole in the same way that a student government or similar group
might; and participation in it is not required by any course and does
not result in extra academic credit."
||1996 - Utah: The Salt Lake City Board of
Education determined that they had only one method of legally
preventing a student gay/lesbian support club at East High School. That was to
eliminate all 46 student-led extracurricular clubs. According to the The Herald Journal, in 1996-FEB, rather than allow a
homosexual support group to exist, they eliminated the:
Club,...Native American Club, Human Rights Club, ...Young
Democrats,...UFO (Ultimate Frisbee Organization), Advancement of
Hispanic Students, ...Chinese Checkers Club...HIS Club (a Bible study
club),...Latino Pride Club,...Students Against Drunk Driving, Students
of the Orient, Young Republicans. "
after the Salt Lake board continued to allow certain non-curricular
clubs to meet, the American Civil Liberties Union and two other groups
filed suit on behalf of the students in 1998....After two years of
litigation, the Salt Lake school board agreed to change its policy and
allow the Gay-Straight Alliance. The school board reportedly spent more
than a quarter-million dollars in attorneys fees in the case. There is
now a Gay-Straight Alliance at every public high school in Salt Lake,
according to reports." 2
One can only try to imagine the anger that must have been generated by the school board's decision to close down so many student groups. Much of this fury would probably have been directed at individual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students.
||1999 - California: Distressed
by the beating and execution by crucifixion of Matthew Shepard in
Wyoming, two students of the Orange Unified School District in
Orange County, CA proposed organizing a high school support group for
gays and lesbians. It is to be called the Gay-Straight Alliance
Club. The school district refused to permit the club. They cited
the school's policy on human sexuality. They promote abstinence until
marriage in sex-ed classes. They believe that the support group would
discuss safer-sex methods to reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted infections, and thus be in conflict with the school's
policy. The board indicated that they would reconsider their decision
if the club changed its name to obscure its purpose. The group would
also have to promise to avoid discussing human sexuality during their
meetings. On 2000-FEB-4, pending resolution of the lawsuit, a US
District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction. He ordered the
school district to allow the group to meet. The judge felt that if
this was not done, the group might suffer "irreparable harm."
More details are available on this and
||2001: California: In a classic violation of the Equal Access law, the Saddleback Valley Unified School District had ruled that Justin Van Schiock, could not hold meetings of his chapter of the
Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the Mission Viejo High
School. They also denied his club official recognition. The school recognized other student-run clubs, so the Equal Access law applied. Yet,
his lawsuit failed in a lower state court. In an unanimous ruling, The California Court of Appeal reversed that decision and ordered that the
Equal Access law applied. The School District must recognize the club and give it access to all the normal in-school media.
2000-NOV: Louisiana: In spite of numerous applications of the Equal Access law over its 17 years existence, students still must
occasionally fight for their rights at some schools. Dominique Begnaud of Lake Charles,
LA, tried to organize a Bible Club and Fellowship of Christian
Athletes Club in the Cecilia High School. Many secular
student-led and initiated clubs were already active at the school. The
school district refused, citing the principle of "separation of
church and state," which they interpreted as prohibiting religious
clubs on the high-school campus. With the help of Liberty Counsel,
a Fundamentalist Christian legal defense group, the school board quickly
agreed to settle the case. Mathew D. Staver, president and general
counsel of Liberty Counsel said:
"It is hard to understand why
schools cannot get the message of equal access. The Equal Access law has
been in existence since 1984 and its message is crystal clear ó equal
access means equal treatment. If school administrators canít understand
the simple message of equal access, you wonder how they can teach
children anything....When a school prohibits a club solely because of
its religious content, the school violates the First Amendment provision
that it pretends to uphold." 3,4
||2001-AUG-23: California: Faced with potential lawsuits that
they could not possibly win, the Capistrano Unified School District
in San Juan Capistrano, CA, decided to end an 11 year ban against
student-led religious or gay student clubs in its high schools.
However, the nearby Saddleback Valley Unified School District
subsequently voted to ban a Christian club.
|2002: KY: Some
gay and straight students of Boyd County High School in
Cannonsburg, KY, attempted twice to obtain permission from the school's
teacher-parent council to organize a Gay-Straight Alliance
support group. They were rejected both times. On the third try, during
the week of OCT-26, they had a letter of support from the American
Civil Liberties Union which explained the requirements of the
federal Equal Access Act.
This time, the PTC approved their application. This triggered two
demonstrations: The Boyd County Ministerial Association, planned a community protest against the support group on NOV-10. Many
students boycotted the school by staying home on Monday NOV-4; 420 out
of the total student body of 990 stayed away. |
||Jenny Reese, mother of a student who is a member of the
Alliance said: "I just don't think it's a good idea for parents
to let their children stay home from school. It doesn't set a good
example for tolerance.''
||Andrea Opell, 17, a senior, said: ''Anything could happen.
'A lot of people say it will die down, and I hope it does. I hope
it doesn't get violent. I hope it doesn't get out of hand."
||Rev. Tim York, pastor at Heritage Temple Free Will Baptist
Church and the Rev. Bill Bentley, pastor at First United
Methodist Church have appealed the council's decision.
||James Esseks of the ACLU said at this was "...the
first time I've heard of a reaction of this kind or this size"
to the creation of a gay-straight alliance at a school. He
continued: "The level of reaction or resistance they're
encountering illustrates the need for a safe place for these kids
to meet. Can you imagine being a gay or lesbian student in a
community where people feel so free in expressing their
intolerance? That must be a difficult place to be.'' 5
2003-JUL-20: UT: Two students at
Logan High School in Logan UT.
Mark Sailor and Jessica Liddell, attempted to organize a Gay-Straight
Alliance at their school. The club's mission statement says it's aimed
at increasing "awareness of hardships faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual
and transgender people." Principal Charles Nelson initially
refused permission. He cited district policy which prohibits clubs:
program and activities would materially or substantially involve human
The American Civil Liberties Union sent Nelson a letter
which encouraged him to allow the club to meet. It said, in part:
"By acknowledging students right to form GSA's, you are not only
obeying the law and avoiding potential legal liability, you are
supporting diversity in your schools and taking a strong step towards
addressing anti-gay harassment....We send you this letter to provide you
with basic information you need to avoid expensive and redundant
litigation over this issue."
Nelson reversed his decision, saying:
"We plan to
propose the Gay-Straight Alliance in the first part of September. We're
going to go ahead and approve the club."
He said that the
foundational concern of many school officials is that the GSA would
encourage straight students to become gay. He said:
"I'm not sure
that fear is founded, but that's the underlying thing. [The club] needs
to happen. We're not really concerned with the morals. ... What we're
concerned with is that everyone is treated with respect at school."
Essentially all human sexuality researchers, national professional psychology and psychiatric associations, etc. agree that one's sexual orientation is discovered, not chosen. However Nelson's comment may have some validity with regard to bisexuals. If the school culture becomes more accepting of sexual minorities, then some bisexuals might feel free to act on their or be open to others about their sexual attraction to persons of the same gender.
In a state which is over 60% Mormon, approval of the group is not a
certain thing. If the school authorities reject the club, the
students can appeal the decision to the District Student Services
Review Committee. However, the school really have
only two choices: They can disobey the federal law, veto the GSA, and
lose at court. Or they can approve the GSA. 2
The students apparently won, because in 2007-MAR the club list of the
Logan High School includes a GSA. Their listing states:
"The GSA seeks to create a school environment tolerante [sic] of all
differing life styles and beliefs. The GSA support group welcomes all
who feel pressured by their peers or just want to give a friendly hand."
2006-FEB: GA: The House
in the Georgia Legislature passed a bill which requires students to obtain prior approval from
their parents before they would be able to join any extracurricular
club. Edward Gray of Youth Pride -- a gay-positive group in Atlanta --
said that the legislation would harm gay, lesbian, and bisexual students
by forcing them to reveal their sexual orientation to their parents
before they feel it is safe to do so. They would run the risk of being
thrown out on the street, of being physically attacked, or of the loss
of financial educational support. He said:
don't say that young people should keep anything secret from their
parents. We also don't say you should tell your parents everything."
State Rep. Bobby Reese voted in favor of the bill. He accused
gay-straight alliances of recruiting kids. He said:
blunt about what they're trying to do. They're recruiting our children,
and the parents need to know this, How dare anybody say that it's not
the parents' right and obligation and privilege to teach their children
about sex or sexuality or anything else."
Tom McClusky, spokesperson at the Family Research Council, a
Fundamentalist Christian group, said that the bill:
"...is not an
attack on anyone. If they're joining any sort of group, be it the Boy
Scouts, Girl Scouts or be it some sort of gay-straight alliance, it is a
parent's right to know what their children are doing with their day."
Others suggest that the bill is
unwise. For those students with a good relationship to their parents, it
is not needed because the youths will generally inform their parents of their sexual orientation.
For those students with a poor relationship, or whose parents are homophobic, it may be unsafe for them to
reveal their sexual orientation. 6
||2006-JUL: GA: Initially, the the White County School
District allowed a local high school GSA group called PRIDE to form. They
then took the unusual step of closing down PRIDE and all other non-curricular
clubs in a desperate effort to prevent the GSA from continuing to exist. In
reality, they allowed a few clubs to continue. The American Civil
Liberties Union of Georgia successfully sued the school district. The
federal court ruled:
"[E]xtracurricular activities have significant educational value.
PRIDE was not the only student group that was prohibited from meeting on
school premises during the 2005-2006 school year. These other groups are
also entitled to protection under the EAA [Equal Access Act]. Although
plaintiffs have raised claims only on behalf of PRIDE and its members,
the injunction would also pertain to other student groups that have been
denied equal access."
Other clubs affected by the court's decision include the Fellowship of
Christian Athletes, Key Club, and Students Against Drunk Driving.
Kerry Pacer, one of the founders of PRIDE, said:
"This has been the best civics lesson ever. I couldn't believe the
school was so unfair to us when all we wanted to do was to try to
address the violence and harassment against gay students. I'm relieved
that the legal system works and the court will make the school let the
club meet." 8,9
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
"Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens,"
1990-JUN-4. 496 U.S. 226 (1990) (USSC+). The decision is available at: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/
John Wright, "Logan High gay club OK'd," The Herald Journal,
Greey Falwell, "The 17-year battle to maintain equal access," Falwell
Confidential newsletter, 2001-AUG-16.
Liberty Counsel's home page is at
Mark Pitsch, "Gay-rights decision protested at E. Kentucky school:
Allowing group to meet sparks student boycott," The Courier-Journal,
Louisville, KY., 2002-NOV-5, at:
"Georgia Considers Outing Extracurricular Clubs," Citizen Link,
"Logan High School: Clubs and Organizations," at:
"Federal Court Says White County, Georgia School District Must Allow Gay-Straight Alliance to Meet,"
ACLU, 2006-JUL-14, at:
The court ruling can be read at:
http://www.aclu.org/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from:
The text of the Equal Access Act is at:
http://web.cyberis.net/ and at:
Copyright © 2000 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2000-FEB-10
Latest update: 2014-FEB-19
Author: B.A. Robinson