State of Utah Spent Quarter Million in Futile Fight Against Gay Student Groups

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Gay/straight alliance groups flourish in Salt Lake schools despite wasted time and money
November 13, 2001

(SALT LAKE CITY, November 13, 2001) — A long, expensive court battle against student-run groups intended to support gay youth and their friends has ended for the state of Utah, which spent a quarter million dollars defending a Salt Lake City school board ban, the students’ lawyers said Tuesday.

Not only was the battle expensive for Utah, it ultimately did nothing to deter students from organizing the support groups, known as gay/straight alliances. Today, among the hundreds around the country, there is at least one group supporting gay students at every public high school in Salt Lake City.

The three legal organizations that represented the students in their suit against the Salt Lake school board, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, this week accepted the final court-ordered payment for attorneys fees, closing the last chapter on a struggle whose cost to the state, counting its own legal expenses and its payments to the students’ lawyers, totaled about $250,000.

“It’s unfortunate that students who would have benefitted from these clubs were deprived of that opportunity during this lawsuit,” said Lambda Senior Counsel Jon Davidson. “But the end result is that everyone learned an important lesson about the nondiscrimination mandates of federal law, as well as the value of gay/straight alliances, which now exist at nearly 800 schools around the country.”

ACLU of Utah Legal Director, Stephen Clark said, “The efforts of those opposing these groups clearly backfired. In fact, groups supporting gay students are now thriving at nine schools in Utah. I hope the government’s wasted effort and money will deter other school districts from undertaking these harmful, and ultimately futile attempts to ban these clubs.”

“Attempts to discriminate against gay/straight student alliances have failed in Utah and nationally,” added NCLR Senior Staff Attorney Shannon Minter. “The fact that students stood up in the face of opposition even in a conservative stronghold like Utah shows how essential these support groups are to the lives of so many students, both gay and non-gay.”

Under the Equal Access Act, secondary schools that receive federal funds and that allow non-curricular student groups to meet on campus, are prohibited from discriminating against any groups based on their viewpoints. When students at Salt Lake’s East High tried to organize a gay/straight alliance in 1996, the school board officially banned all non-curricular clubs in an effort to stop them.

In a lawsuit challenging the school board’s actions, a federal judge ruled that the school district violated the Equal Access Act in 1998 by allowing some non-curricular clubs to meet, but prohibiting the Gay/Straight Alliance from meeting. In a subsequent lawsuit, a second federal judge ruled that the school district also violated the First Amendment in 2000 by attempting to ban a gay-themed curricular club. In the wake of these decisions, school officials agreed to rescind their anti-gay policy in the fall of 2000. Subsequently, the court ordered the state to pay attorneys’ fees to the lawyers representing the students. The final payment of attorney’s fees now officially ends the lawsuit.

(East High Gay/Straight Alliance v. Board of Education, No. 2:98CV193J)

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