News (USA)

Legal action threatened over Pa. school’s refusal to allow gay-straight alliance

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — The American Civil Liberties Union is threatening legal action against a central Pennsylvania school board that denied students’ request to form a club that would bring together gay and straight students.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania and Equality Pennsylvania sent a letter Tuesday to the Chambersburg Area School District warning that it faces a federal lawsuit if it does not reverse its decision to prohibit formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).

Last month, the school board voted 5-4 to deny the request to allow the club at Chambersburg Area Senior High School.

The ACLU says the school board’s action is a violation of federal law.

“Allowing the creation of the Gay-Straight Alliance club is not only the legal thing to do, it is the right thing to do for the district’s students,” said Reggie Shuford, Executive Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Discrimination and harassment can have a devastating impact on gay youth, and GSAs provide an important and safe forum for students who are concerned about these issues.”

The ACLU cites the 1984 Federal Equal Access Act, which requires secondary schools to allow a variety of student-run religious and non-religious voluntary clubs that meet during “non-instructional” time. This law was later upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court.

The Chambersburg Area School District said in January that the board had concerns regarding the wording of the proposed GSA’s constitution. Disagreement over the wording continued into the next session in February, after which board members voted to deny formation of the club.

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According to the district’s rules governing non-academic clubs, a non-sanctioned group would be prohibited from using the school’s morning announcement system or put up flyers advertising its events, may not hold events or fundraisers, and may not participate as a group in Color Day events.

The school district has previously granted official approval to a number of non-curricular student groups at the high school, including the Bible Club and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“Schools need to understand that they cannot pick and choose which clubs to allow,” said Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The same law that ensures the right of GSAs to exist also protects the existence of a variety of clubs, from scrapbooking to religious clubs.”

Equality Pennsylvania Executive Director Ted Martin urged the school board to reconsider and “do the right thing” for its LGBT students and their supporters.

Nearly 6,000 people have signed an online petition at started by 2010 Chambersburg graduate Thomas McCalmont, who said he was bullied daily at the school because of his sexual orientation and was driven to thoughts of suicide by his senior year.

The ALCU letter gives the school district until March 15, 2013 to comply.

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