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Federal court overturns Georgia high school’s gay-straight alliance ban

BY ARTHUR S. LEONARD 

A Georgia school district’s attempt to bar a gay-straight alliance at its high school by abolishing all extra-curricular activities failed when a federal judge ruled against the district on July 14.

Judge William C. O’Kelley found that even though the district claimed to have barred all student groups, some that continued to meet at the school fell within the meaning of the federal Equal Access Act (EEA), which requires that schools that receive federal funding grant equal access to all non-curricular groups.

Students at White County High School founded Peers Rising in Diverse Education (PRIDE) in 2005. The principal reluctantly gave permission for the group to meet on campus as a recognized organization in January 2005, but with various restrictions, such as requiring the group to submit its membership list to the administration and that the assistant principal be present at all of its meetings.

The group sparked controversy, including student and community protests. While this vindicated the need for such a group, the principal, Bryan Dorsey, and school superintendent Paul Shaw, looked for a way to bar the group. To comply with the EAA, they decided to bar all non-curricular groups in order to be able to bar PRIDE. The group had successfully met without any disruption at the school. The school did allow a small number of other groups to continue to meet.

The PRIDE members turned to the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia to contest the revocation of their recognized organizational status and win the right to meet at school. The students played a key role in support of their case by carefully documenting the meeting activities and school support for other groups.

O’Kelley examined the seven groups that were allowed to continue meeting at the school and concluded that all but one of them were non-curricular groups whose continued recognition and existence created an open public forum at the school. If a non-curricular group is allowed to meet at a school, then all non-curricular groups must be allowed to meet unless there is a substantial, non-discriminatory reason for their exclusion.

Enacted in 1984, the EAA was passed mainly due to concerns that some schools were refusing to allow students to have prayer or Bible meetings during non-class time on school premises. The act broadly authorized equal access for all non-curricular groups, without regard to the political, philosophical or religious subject matter of their meetings. The legal logic underlying the law is that when a school allows a non-curricular group to meet on its premises, it has created a “limited public forum,” a term of art in First Amendment law, that means the school has become, for limited purposes, a place where censorship based on the content of speech may not be practiced without a compelling justification.

O’Kelley concluded that the EAA had been triggered and ruled that the plaintiffs were entitled to a permanent injunction requiring the school district to allow PRIDE to meet at the school with all the privileges accorded to a recognized student group.

The school could appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, a court notably hostile to gay rights that has not yet issued a decision in a GSA recognition case, but the weight of authority from other courts is strongly in favor of GSA recognition in public schools.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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