Institute on Religion and Democracy
June 7, 1999
Relying upon 1983 federal legislation intended to allow Bible clubs equal access in high schools, a student homosexual group is demanding not only meeting space but also official approval at a Salt Lake City high school.
The United Methodist Women's Division is contributing $11,000 to a "Free Schools" campaign in support of the Gay/Straight Alliance's campaign for acceptance.
The Gay/Straight Alliance first formed in 1995 at East High School in Salt Lake City. Fearing that federal law would preclude a ban targeting only homosexual groups, the Salt Lake City School Board decided to ban all non-curricular student organizations. Forty-six student groups, including the Frisbee Club, the Young Republicans, and Students Against Drunk Driving were shut down so as to block the Gay/Straight Alliance.
Utah's state legislature also responded to the Gay/Straight Alliance in 1996 with a new law prohibiting public school student groups that promote sexuality, bigotry, violence or illegality. But another Utah law permits private groups to rent space in public buildings.
With legal and financial assistance from a New York-based homosexual rights group, the Gay/Straight Alliance is now renting space at East High School. The other banned student organizations, lacking similar outside help, remain shut down.
Meanwhile, with full backing from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, homosexual high school students, with their out-of-the-closet faculty advisor, are waging a legal battle against the Salt Lake School Board to procure free meeting space. These groups may have been surprised to receive support from United Methodist Women, the nation's largest organization for church women.
It is a bizarre situation involving sexuality, religion, free speech, parental rights, public education, and relationships among local, state and federal governments. This story's sharp twists and turns through nearly every fault line in our nation's culture make it the perfect emblem of America in the 1990's. With even Mormon-dominated Utah vulnerable to the demands of sexual interest groups, the culture wars have clearly become a national phenomenon.
According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in New York, there are at least 400 Gay-Straight Alliances meeting in high schools across the country. And their numbers are growing. The Salt Lake City case, because local authorities have so far stood firm against GLSEN's demands, appears to have generated more publicity than most.
The Gay/Straight Alliance at East High School coalesced four years ago when some students recognized a teacher at the Utah Gay and Lesbian Community Center. Science teacher Camille Lee was there to hear a speech by gay-rights activist Candace Gingrich, sister to the former U.S. Speaker of the House. Lee agreed to help six students start a club for discussion about homosexual concerns.
Needing an ally, she asked the faculty adviser for the school's Socialist Club to join her in meeting with the principal. Lee also decided to announce publicly her own lesbianism and became a member of GLSEN. The principal, Kay Petersen, was supportive of the proposed club. "Closets aren't healthy places," explained Petersen, who later received an award from GLSEN.
A worried Salt Lake City School Board disagreed. In early 1996 the board banned all non-curricular clubs from the city's schools. Its members feared a more specific ban would violate the federal Equal Access Act of 1983, which prohibits discrimination against a school group because of the unpopularity of its ideas. Conservative congressmen had created this legislation, with President Reagan's approval, to protect religious groups from discrimination.
Even without the school board's new policy, Utah's subsequently ratified prohibition against student groups that promote sexuality seemingly would still shut out the Gay/Straight Alliance. But the state's Civic Center Act of 1989 allows private groups to meet in public buildings. Student groups with adult sponsors and liability insurance are entitled to rent space, even if they lack official endorsement from the school's administration. The Gay/Straight Alliance gained the needed adult supervision and liability money from GLSEN. About 25 students now attend the weekly meetings.
Nearly all of the 45 other non-curriculum related groups, like the Computer Club, the Aztec Club for Latinos, the Black Club, the Ski Club and the Polynesian Club, failed to find the sponsorship and funding required to continue and were disbanded. The Key club, with sponsorship from the Kiwanis, was able to persevere. (Athletic teams were deemed curriculum-related and continue to meet, as do the National Honor Society and Future Business Leaders of America.) But the Gay/Straight Alliance and their sponsors, despite their rented meeting space, are still upset because they lack official sanction. In 1998, they filed a civil rights suit against the Salt Lake City School Board.
"If we were school-sponsored, we could make announcements and get the word out to people in need of the support," explained one member of the Gay/Straight Alliance to a reporter. Other students and faculty have complained that the absence of student organizations has undermined school spirit. Some even fret that colleges will snub them because they lack extracurricular activities on their school record.
In April of this year, the principal at East High School once again courted controversy by allowing the Gay/Straight Alliance to make a presentation about gay pride at a school assembly on multiculturalism required for all students. Parents responded with outrage, and the principal admitted error. Future assemblies will only allow cultural groups identified with a specific ethnicity or geographic location.
Meanwhile, an award winning - and sympathetic - documentary about the Gay/Straight Alliance's struggle against the Salt Lake City School Board was produced last year. "Out of the Past" was acclaimed at the Sundance Film Festival, aired at the White House's first celebration of Lesbian and Gay Pride month, and broadcast on PBS last fall.
The Gay/Straight Alliance picked up crucial religious support this year when United Methodist Women, the largest religious women's organization in the country, donated $11,000 for a regional "Free School Clubs" meeting to generate support for overthrowing the Salt Lake City school policy. "We're not funding anything that is promoting sexual orientation," said Lois Dauway of the Women's group. Denying that the grant would violate church policies that disapprove of homosexuality, she said they were merely upholding free speech.
Some church members will no doubt wince at their denomination's alliance with the ACLU and the GLSEN, neither of which has been typically friendly towards church groups. And the leaders of United Methodist Women probably have not contemplated their double standard: they have been silent when prayer or Bible groups have faced discrimination in public schools.
The hypocrisies of its allies aide, GLSEN is optimistic about the continued expansion of its network of students and teachers. GLSEN's creation in Boston in 1990 led Massachusetts to become the first state to recognize sexual minorities in public schools. Now there are over 140 homosexual student groups in Massachusetts schools.
The Gay/Straight Alliance of East High School is the only public school group of its kind in Utah so far, but GLSEN hopes a successful conclusion to its litigation later this year will allow other gay/straight groups to blossom throughout conservative Utah.