Victory for gay/straight alliances in Florida

by Julia Tate, JD, LCSW

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida recently ruled in favor of a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) which sought recognition as an official student group at Okeechobee High School in Okeechobee, Florida.

The students cited the federal Equal Access Act which prohibits schools from denying equal access or discriminating against "any students who wish to conduct a meeting on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meeting." Despite this federal law, the principal refused to recognize the group.

The School Board cited support for their abstinence-only sex education program as a reason for denying the group recognition. In a policy which the School Board adopted after the GSA sought recognition and after the group filed the lawsuit, the Board decreed that: "To assure that student clubs and organizations do not interfere with the School Board's abstinence only sex education policy and the School Board's obligation to promote the well-being of all students, no club or organization which is sex-based or based upon any kind of sexual grouping, orientation, or activity of any kind shall be permitted."

The court rejected the premise that discussing the subject of sexuality undermines the policy advocating abstinence. Further, the court noted the utter lack of relevance of the abstinence-only educational program to non-heterosexuals because the program requires teaching that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity."

Noting that legally-sanctioned marriage is inaccessible to non-heterosexual Florida students (since Florida limits marriage to a man and a woman), the Court found the abstinence-only program to be of "limited utility to OHS's non-heterosexual students, the well-being of whom must also be considered" under the requirements of the EAA.

The Court found that the School Board was obligated by the Equal Access Act "to grant equal access and recognition to the GSA" and grant the GSA all the benefits afforded to other groups without placing any restrictions on the GSA that are not placed on other groups. The Court noted that this decision was consistent with decisions relating to other GSA groups in Minnesota, Indiana, Utah, and Texas.

The students relied on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in addition to the Equal Access Act, in supporting their case. The court noted that the GSA sought "to meet as a group to discuss matters pertinent to the challenges presented by their non-heterosexual identity and to build understanding and trust with other heterosexual students" and that this tolerance-based mission would not interfere with the discipline in operating the school.

The court said that the United States Supreme Court has set down principles requiring that the Board show that "its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint" which the Board failed to do. The court concluded by noting that "ensuring that this minority of students are afforded meaningful expression secures the precept of freedom from external dominion over thought and expression exalted by the founders and safeguarded by the First Amendment."

Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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