Earlier this year, school clubs that offer a safe environment for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students were given a boost in Southern Utah, when the Washington County School District changed its club policy to allow gay-straight alliances in all six of its high schools.
Now, two more districts may be following suit, due to the efforts of the Utah ACLU and a number of students.
In May, the Washington County School District faced pressure from students and the ACLU over a club policy that Utah American Civil Liberties Union legal director Darcy Goddard said were designed to shut out clubs with unpopular viewpoints. This language, she said, included requirements for clubs to promote “moral” and “wholesome” activities, and that they receive student or faculty approval before being able to meet.
“They had this completely subjective criteria in there with no guidelines for a superintendent or a principal to make decisions,” she told QSaltLake at the time. “Like the decision in determining what [constitutes] the ‘moral well-being of students.’ What does that even mean? And without providing specific guidance, how is any superintendent or principal supposed to know what that means? There’s no way to make that decision without relying on [an individual] opinion [about morality].”
When the ACLU met with the district’s superintendent to discuss the policies, the district approved a new policy that allowed GSAs to meet. At the same time, the legal group was looking into similar policies in Carbon, Davis and Tooele County. According to Goddard, students at Tooele High School approached the ACLU earlier this year claiming that the district had ignored their application to start a GSA.
After reading over a copy of the Tooele County School District’s student club policies, Goddard informed Superintendent Terry L. Linares that the policies contained several “constitutional deficiencies,” including prohibitions on using the word “gay” in a club name, on the grounds that such a reference would “involve human sexuality.” Under Utah law, public schools cannot discuss a number of issues related to sex including contraception and sex outside marriage. The law, however, does not prohibit the use of words like ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian’ or even ‘straight’ used in the name of a club.
“As of now, [the district] has said they are going to start revising the policy and that they agree to meet with us at some unspecified date when the principal [of Tooele High School] returns to school,” said Goddard, adding that she assumed that date would be sometime this autumn.
“As far a we’re concerned it is not a sufficient answer nor does it excuse the district’s refusal to approve the GSA application that was submitted months ago by students at Tooele High School,” she added.
On July 2, Goddard sent the district a letter stating, she said, “that as far as we know the only stated reason for their delay or refusal to approve the application is use of word ‘gay’ in the name.” The fact that such a word is constitutionally protected, she added, has been “litigated repeatedly,” and courts have repeatedly ruled that excluding “gay” from a club’s name violates First Amendment guarantees to free speech.
“We are providing those case citations and analysis to the district,” said Goddard. “We’re going to give [the district] a relatively short turn around time to let us know if they’ll approve the application. And if they’re not, we’re willing to go forward with other avenues of legal recourse.”
The district has been given a deadline of July 12 to respond.
Goddard also said that the ACLU has written to schools in the Davis County School District, where South Davis Junior High ninth grader James Bennion fought to start a GSA earlier this year. Bennion’s efforts were thwarted by a district policy stating that clubs can only be started within the first 20 days of the school year and if they have a faculty advisor.
“It’ll probably happen but we don’t have an advisor, that’s one of the main things that’s stopping us,” he said. “A lot of teachers are scared to stand up and say we’re OK with this being here. They’re afraid of getting penalized or having their jobs taken away.”
Goddard said that Davis County School District’s policies are of interest to them because the Tooele school district has modeled its policies on theirs.