SALT LAKE CITY — The ACLU of Utah has sent a warning to the state’s school district superintendents, cautioning them that banning same sex couples from attending proms, dances and other school functions violates their constitutional rights.
In a letter dated Monday, ACLU of Utah’s Interim Legal Director Joseph Cohn wrote:
Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah Foundation, Inc. (“ACLU”) received information that a student was asked to leave her school’s homecoming dance because she was there with a female date.
I am writing to you now because any rule, policy, or practice that forbids students from attending school dances with same-sex dates is unconstitutional, and must cease or be rescinded immediately. It is my sincere hope that by addressing this issue now, we will be able to avoid costly litigation should we learn of any future instances of LGBT students being turned away from school functions.
It is in this spirit of cooperation that I urge you to contact each of the school principals in your district to inform them that policies of LGBT exclusion must be abandoned immediately.
Cohn’s letter goes on to point out that two federal court cases have evaluated the constitutionality of a public school’s ban on same-sex couples at prom.
In the first case, Fricke v. Lynch in 1980, the school’s principal testified that the policy was based on concern for possible disruption and violence at the prom in reaction to the participation of a gay couple.
The Court ruled that the Constitution required the school to take steps to protect the couple’s free expression rather than to stifle it.
Nearly twenty years later, a public high school in Mississippi cancelled the prom rather than allow a student to bring a same-sex date.
In the highly publicized case that resulted, McMillen v. Itawamba County School District, a federal court in Mississippi ultimately determined that school policy that ban same-sex prom dates violated the right to free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment.
In addition to violating free speech rights, the ACLU maintains a policy prohibiting same-sex couples from attending prom or school dances violates the equal protection provisions of the constitution as well.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that policies by public entities (like public schools) that are based upon animosity or prejudice towards gay people violates a commitment to equal rights guaranteed to all Americans by the Fourteenth Amendment.
“As we have worked closely with school districts across the state to protect the rights of students to form Gay Straight Alliances and exercise free speech, the ACLU of Utah looks forward to working with Utah’s district superintendents and school principals to ensure the constitutional right of all students, regardless of sexual orientation, to attend school proms, dances and other functions,” said ACLU Utah, in a statement.