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The Federal Equal Access Act

1990 to 2006: schools attempting to circumvent
the law and prohibit Gay-Straight Alliances and
other controversial student groups.

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Court rulings:

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.

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A sampling of attempts to circumvent the equal access law:

bullet 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" because:

"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."

bullet 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:

"Hispanic 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. "

"However, 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.

bullet 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 similar cases.

bullet 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

bullet 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.

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bullet2002: 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.

Some reactions:
bullet 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.''

bullet 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."

bullet 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.

bullet 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:

"whose program and activities would materially or substantially involve human sexuality."

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." 7


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:

"We 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:

"They're pretty 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:

" 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

bullet 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

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens," 1990-JUN-4. 496 U.S. 226 (1990) (USSC+). The decision is available at:
  2. John Wright, "Logan High gay club OK'd," The Herald Journal, 2003-JUL-20, at:
  3. Greey Falwell, "The 17-year battle to maintain equal access," Falwell Confidential newsletter, 2001-AUG-16.
  4. Liberty Counsel's home page is at
  5. 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:
  6. "Georgia Considers Outing Extracurricular Clubs," Citizen Link, 2006-FEB-20, at:
  7. "Logan High School: Clubs and Organizations," at:
  8. "Federal Court Says White County, Georgia School District Must Allow Gay-Straight Alliance to Meet," ACLU, 2006-JUL-14, at:
  9. The court ruling can be read at: 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: and at:

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Site navigation:

 Home page > Christianity > Christian history, etc > Prayer > Equal Access Act > here

or Home page > Religious Information > Religious practices > Prayer > Equal Access Act > here

or Home page > "Hot" topics > Homosexuality > Gay-straight alliances > Equal Access Act > here

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Copyright © 2000 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-FEB-10
Latest update: 2014-FEB-19
Author: B.A. Robinson

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