by Executive Director Kevin Cathcart (March 2007)
The governor of Utah did a dangerous thing last week. He signed a bill into law that would allow schools throughout the state to ban gay-straight alliances if they do not “maintain the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior.”
The extremist lawmakers who’d backed the bill claim its regulations will apply equally to all student clubs. This is as disingenuous as it is homophobic. Debating the bill over the past month or so, lawmakers dubbed it the “gay clubs bill,” and used it to codify their baseless concerns that gay-straight alliances (GSAs) “indoctrinate” helpless youth into the “gay lifestyle.” And while the new rules are indeed written to apply to all clubs, everybody knows that requirements like obtaining parental permission to join a club or submitting written materials to the principal for review mean quite a different thing when you’re comparing a GSA with, say, a chess club.
A school district rarely monitors a chess club to see if it’s maintaining “boundaries of socially appropriate behavior,” but this kind of scrutiny is routine for GSAs. It’s why we’ve spent more than a decade fighting for the rights of gay clubs. In fact, one of Lambda Legal’s earliest GSA cases involved the first gay student club in the state of Utah, formed in 1995 at a Salt Lake City school. We argued that under the federal Equal Access Act, schools that receive federal funding and allow at least one after-school club to meet and use the school’s facilities may not deny any student club the same treatment based on the content of what they want to discuss.
The Salt Lake City school district knew we were right, but instead of simply letting the GSA meet, it banned all noncurricular student clubs. Talk about cutting off your nose… There were more lawsuits and protests by students and parents, and finally in 2000, the district relented, allowing all clubs to meet, including the GSA. Two years ago, the controversy surfaced again when students at a school in conservative Utah County formed a GSA. The school board navigated around the Equal Access Act by requiring parental permission before students could join any student club. It’s no surprise that the GSA stalled out under such a tough restriction — and that restriction is now state law.
Today there are about a dozen GSAs in the state of Utah. Think about that: roughly 12 gay clubs in the entire state. Even if each club has 10 active members (which they all don’t), we’re still talking about 120 people out of 2.5 million. So state lawmakers cannot be proud: they’ve targeted the 120 or so young people under their wings who are some of the most in need of their protection.
It is too soon to tell how Utah’s new law, if enforced against GSAs as its proponents hope it will be, will fare under the Equal Access Act. But Lambda Legal has a strong track record of winning GSA cases, and we’ve got the momentum on our side. When our attorneys started litigating these cases, there were only a handful of gay student clubs around the country. Today, with the right to form gay student clubs firmly established, there are more than 3,200 GSAs registered with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Twelve of those GSAs are in Utah — and you can bet we’ll do everything we can to make sure they stay there, even in the face of this shameful new law.