ASHLAND, Ky. A federal judge has ordered a northeastern Kentucky school district to allow a newly formed Gay-Straight Alliance to meet on school grounds.
U.S. District Judge David Bunning ruled on April 18 that the Boyd County school district must treat the group no differently than the Bible club, whether reading announcements over the intercom or publishing meeting times in the school newspaper.
Bunning granted a request from the American Civil Liberties Union, representing students who filed suit against the school district, for an injunction to give equal access to the Gay-Straight Alliance.
The ACLU argued that a ban on all school club meetings was an unconstitutional attempt to shut out students who sought to form the gay-straight group.
"The judge here recognized that schools can't silence students who hold unpopular views, even if those views cause others to react disruptively," said Tamara Lange, a staff attorney for the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "Instead, the school must punish students who are disruptive."
The ACLU claimed in the lawsuit that the school board had violated the students' rights under the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment. The lawsuit also charged that the school board had violated the Kentucky Education Reform Act by usurping the authority of a school council, which had voted previously to allow the student group to meet on campus.
Administrators and school board members testified last month that they feared animosity surrounding the group might turn to violence. The school board tried to calm the situation by voting to suspend the meetings of all clubs.
However, Bunning concluded from two days of testimony that some student groups, including the Bible club and drama club, continued to meet on campus despite the ban.
Bill Capehart, superintendent of the Boyd County schools, said he notified the high school principal on April 18 of the judge's ruling, letting him know that the ban on club meetings had been lifted. He said the school board would discuss the issue tonight.
"I just can't project at this point how the community and how the opposition are going to respond," Capehart said. "It's going to be our challenge to assure that learning goes on."
Bunning noted several examples of harassment, including threats, against students involved in the gay-support group.
Capehart said had testified in the hearing that tempers flared among parents when the group was created. He said he saw "true hatred" in the eyes of about 70 people who opposed the club during a school council meeting in October of last year.
"As the judge noted, anti-gay sentiment is rampant at this school," said David Friedman, a lawyer for the ACLU of Kentucky. "He rightfully recognized that the GSA serves the public interest by working to foster tolerance in a community that clearly needs it."
Bunning said most students in the school would likely benefit from his ruling because all other non-curricular student groups would likely be reinstated when the gay-straight group is reinstated, including religious and community-service clubs.
The school board took the unusual action of suspending all clubs in the district last December. Seven of the 25 students who attended the club meeting responded with the lawsuit.
"We are absolutely thrilled at this news," said Kaye King, the club's faculty adviser. "I cannot tell you how proud I am of these kids for standing up for their rights in such a hostile environment."