ACLU Tells Federal Court That Mandatory Anti-Gay Harassment Training Does Not Violate Students' Freedom of Religion

April 28, 2005

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: media@aclu.org

Brief Also Argues that All Students' Free Speech Must Be Protected

ASHLAND, KY -- In papers filed today in federal court, the American Civil Liberties Union argues that requiring students to undergo a court-ordered anti-harassment training at Boyd County High School does not violate their rights to free exercise of religion. Today's filing is a response to a motion for preliminary injunction by a national conservative legal organization seeking to shut down an anti-harassment training ordered by a federal judge in an earlier ACLU case.

"Telling students about a subject they disagree with or don't like doesn't force them to change their beliefs," said Lili Lutgens, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Kentucky. "This training is about good citizenship -- learning how to disagree respectfully so that everyone at school feels safe."

The anti-harassment training is part of the settlement in a lawsuit the ACLU brought on behalf of several students who wanted to form a gay-straight alliance (GSA) club at Boyd County High School. The new lawsuit in Boyd County was filed in February by the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based national legal organization funded and run by over 30 conservative Christian churches and organizations. The ACLU Lesbian & Gay Rights Project and the ACLU of Kentucky represent five plaintiffs from the original case and one parent of a Boyd County student who have joined the school district in fighting the ADF lawsuit.

In today's brief, the ACLU argues that the training is necessary to ensure that gay and gay-supportive students have safe access to education at the school. The school district agreed to implement the training last year after a federal judge found that there is a widespread problem with anti-gay harassment in the school. At least two gay students are known to have dropped out of Boyd County High School because of harassment, the school's Model United Nations once adopted a resolution declaring an "open hunting season" on gay students, and students in an English class once stated that they needed to "take all the fucking faggots out in the back woods and kill them."

In its lawsuit, the ADF charges that statements made in the training video as well as rules banning certain types of speech outlined in the student handbook infringe on students' free speech and freedom of religion rights. In its brief filed today, the ACLU agrees with the ADF that a portion of the school's code of conduct that tells students that they cannot express their views on controversial topics violates the Constitution.

"As longtime supporters of the Constitution, we firmly believe that students shouldn't be stripped of their First Amendment rights to believe what they want to believe and to speak out about those beliefs. And we agree that certain materials put out by the school board overstep those boundaries," said Sharon McGowan, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "But schools also have a duty to make sure that all students have an equal opportunity to learn. Educating students on why anti-gay harassment is wrong and enacting policies that prevent anti-gay harassment can be done in a way that protects students' Constitutional rights and guarantees that all students are given the educational experience they deserve."

The case is Timothy Allen Morrison, II, et al., v. Board of Education of Boyd County, Kentucky.

The former GSA students are represented by McGowan, Tamara Lange, and James Esseks of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, and Lutgens and David Friedman of the ACLU of Kentucky.

More information, including a copy of today's brief, as well as information on the ACLU's earlier case in Boyd County can be found here: /caseprofiles.

 

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