In a national first, LGBT advocates sue Utah schools over ‘anti-gay’ laws

07 November 2016 Published in Newsroom
Culture of silence’ • Equality Utah says curriculum laws barring discussions of homosexuality in public schools violate First Amendment rights to free speech.

Equality Utah sued the state’s education office in federal court late Friday, challenging Utah’s curriculum laws that bar teachers and students from positive discussions about homosexuality in public schools.

Filed in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court, the suit asks a federal judge to strike what it calls anti-lesbian, -gay, -bisexual and -transgender curriculum laws because they are unconstitutional and violate First Amendment rights to free speech, 14th Amendment rights to equal protection and laws that prohibit sex discrimination and equal access.

“The anti-gay school laws were enacted in order to express moral disapproval of ‘homosexuality’ and of LGBT persons,” court papers say. “They do not serve any legitimate state interest.”

Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams announced the lawsuit to thunderous applause at the organization’s annual fundraiser, the Allies Dinner, on Friday night, noting that the laws are some of the most odious anti-LGBT regulations that remain on the books. 

“It explicitly stigmatizes queer students. It sends a message that our lives are something shameful, something that must be censored and erased,” Williams said to the crowd of more than 2,000. “The time has come to end the stigma and strike ‘no promo homo’ from state law.” 

The lawsuit is the first of its kind in any state.

“It could set the precedent for the striking down these laws nationally,” said Chris Stoll, attorney for the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR).

At least seven other states have similar regulations, which some LGBT advocates call “no promo homo” or “don’t say gay” laws.

Such laws single out homosexuality and LGBT persons for poor treatment, improperly restrict speech and “create a culture of silence and nonacceptance of LGBT students and teachers,” Utah court papers say. They also leave LGBT students at risk for “isolation, harassment and long-term negative impacts on their health and well-being.”

The NCLR brought the suit on behalf of Equality Utah, three public-school students — all minors — and their parents, who say their children were not protected by teachers and administrators in their respective schools.

One of the minors is a 7-year-old Weber County boy who is gender nonconforming and sometimes wears girl clothes. In kindergarten, he was teased and beaten at school by other students, who pulled down his pants to see which type of underwear he wore. After suffering severe anxiety, he left school.

The second student is a gay, male high school student from Cache County who has suffered consistent bullying and has been subjected to gay slurs since elementary. He says he was barred from talking about his uncle’s same-sex marriage at school. The third is a lesbian who says she was selectively disciplined while in middle school for holding hands with another girl. Now in enrolled in a Salt Lake County high school, she says she has been discouraged from asking questions about homosexuality in health class.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the Utah Board of Education; State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson; and the Cache County, Jordan and Weber school districts, where the children either are or were enrolled in school.

Calls placed to representatives of Jordan school districts was not returned Friday night. The Board of Education had no comment Friday night, according to spokeswoman Emilie Wheeler, who said its legal counsel had not yet had a chance to look over the document.

The Weber School District on Monday said it had no comment. A Cache County school district spokesman said Tuesday he also had no comment, noting that the district hadn’t received a copy of the complaint yet.

According to the suit, Utah’s laws include multiple provisions targeting LGBT persons. 

First, state law prohibits the use of educational material that includes “advocacy of homosexuality,” court papers say, and, second, requires teaching “abstinence before marriage … and prohibits the advocacy of sexual activity outside of marriage.” 

The laws also continue to reference Utah’s historical, now unconstitutional, one-man-one-woman marriage laws, which declare void any same-sex unions. 

“These laws prevent presentation of accurate information concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual people in health classes and other classes, even when such information serves important educational purposes, while imposing no similar restriction on discussion of heterosexuality,” the lawsuit states. 

And while Utah’s laws appear primarily in the “instruction in health” section of state code, the Board of Education has adopted a rule that extends curriculum laws to “any course or class,” broadly prohibiting speech, the lawsuit argues. 

That makes it hard for teachers and students to know what they can and can’t say, University of Utah law professor Cliff Rosky said. 

“I don’t know if you could even teach a class on this case,” he said. “If a kid brings a newspaper clipping of this story to social studies, I’m not sure what the teacher is supposed to do.” 

Additionally, a Utah school-clubs law requires a ban on the formation of extracurricular school club, including gay-straight alliances, if their proposed activities would as “part of their conduct or means of expression … involve human sexuality,” the lawsuit states, and requires clubs to follow laws prohibiting advocacy of homosexuality.

No similar bans, according to the lawsuit, would apply to clubs about heterosexuality, heterosexual persons or heterosexual issues.

“That discrimination harms LGBT students in a variety of ways,” court papers say, “including by preventing them from participating equally in student clubs, stigmatizing them as inferior an unequal.”

— Salt Lake Tribune reporter Mariah Noble contributed to this story

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