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Debate Over Gay-Straight Alliance Heats Up

Okeechobee County, FL

The Okeechobee County School Board has been engaged in a lawsuit over its attempts to ban a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) from forming at Okeechobee High School.  Though the case is now not set to be heard inJune 2008, the debate has heated up in the last few months.

During the 2006–07 school year, the district was sued by the ACLU on behalf of students who claimed officials violated federal law by not allowing the club to meet.  The ACLU’s lawsuit is based on the Equal Access Act, a federal law that says that if a public school allows any extracurricular clubs to meet on campus they must allow all clubs to do so.  The Equal Access Act was championed by Christian conservatives in the 1980s who wanted to ensure that religious clubs would be allowed to form in public schools.    Students across the country, with the help of the ACLU, have been successful in using this law to ensure that GSAs are allowed to form. 1  

In April, a judge ruled in favor of the club saying there was no evidence that it would expose students to obscene or explicit materials and forcing the school to allow the club to meet while the lawsuit played out in court. 2 

In the past few months, both the school board and the ACLU have been busy with this lawsuit.  

New Policy
In October, the school board voted unanimously to adopt a policy that bans “sex-based clubs” and any club that is “based upon any sexual grouping, orientation, or activity of any kind.”  District officials claim they need the policy in order to ban any club that challenges the district’s abstinence-only policy. 3 

Though this seems like a blatant move against the GSA, because of the judge’s ruling, this new policy cannot be applied to the GSA, at least until the case is settled.  In the meantime, the GSA continues to be allowed to meet.4  

Offering a Settlement
In November, lawyers for the school district told the press that the lawsuit could be settled if students agreed to change the name of the club.  The district’s lawyer said that one of the club’s members had suggested changing the name to ADAPT (Accepting Diversity and Promoting Tolerance). 

The ACLU’s lawyer, however, refuted that claim saying that district officials, not students, were interested in a name change.  He said that his clients have already rejected the idea of the name change, “The students have made clear that the name of the club is important to them because it describes their mission.”

New Strategy and a New Date
Finally, in November, a judge agreed to postpone the date of the trial originally scheduled for March 2008 until June 2008 to give the ACLU more time to prepare for the school district’s new strategy. 

Attorneys for the school board now say they plan to rely heavily on expert testimony in their attempt to ban the GSA from meeting on school grounds in the future. 

Lawyers for the district have said that they plan to use four experts who will testify on the “negative health effects of homosexual sex” as well as the “serious consequences” of heterosexual teenage sexual activity including teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and “poorer emotional health.”  These experts, whose names have yet to be shared by the school board, will also argue that “homosexual lifestyle/relationships are appropriate topics beginning at college age” and it is important “to prevent contact by underage students with adult-only materials.” 

The ACLU’s lawyer characterized this new strategy as “…the most rabidly homophobic response the school board could have taken,” and says that if the case goes to trial, he will ask the judge to “prevent witnesses from giving opinions that homosexuality is harmful.”  Nonetheless, he has asked for and received a later trial date to have more time to prepare for the testimony of these experts.

SIECUS will continue to monitor ongoing controversy and lawsuit. 

References

  1. “Okeechobee schools ban gay clubs,” Florida Today, 10 October 2007, accessed 16 October 2007, <www.floridatoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071010/BREAKINGNEWS/71010050/1086>.
  2. Ibid.
  3.   Rachel Simmonsen, “Gay school club refuses offer to change name, end lawsuit,” Miami Herald, 15 November 2007, accessed 19 November 2007, <http://miamiherald.typepad.com/gaysouthflorida/2007/11/gay-school-club.html>.
  4. Ibid.

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