FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Court Says Required Trainings Do Not Violate Students’ Freedom of Religion
ASHLAND, KY – In a strongly-worded opinion, a federal judge ruled late Friday that there is no religious right to stay out of school trainings aimed at reducing anti-gay harassment. The American Civil Liberties Union entered the case when a national conservative legal organization filed a lawsuit seeking to exempt students from an anti-harassment training implemented in response to an earlier ACLU case.
"Just telling students not to pick on others because of their sexual orientation or gender identity doesn't force them to change their beliefs, and the judge agreed with us about that," said Sharon McGowan, a staff attorney with the ACLU's national Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "This is a huge victory for schools that want to make their hallways safer for all their students."
Last year, a group of students and parents sued Boyd County High School over an anti-harassment training adopted as part of the settlement in a preceding lawsuit brought in 2003 by the ACLU on behalf of several students. In today's decision, the plaintiffs in the more recent lawsuit were represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based legal group funded by over 30 conservative Christian organizations, which claimed that being required to attend the court-ordered anti-harassment training violated their rights to free exercise of religion and that they should be allowed to "opt out" of being taught that harassing gay students is wrong.
In a 17-page opinion, U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning wrote that a mandatory training "to address the issue of harassment at school, including harassment based upon actual or perceived sexual orientation, is rationally related to a legitimate educational goal, namely to maintain a safe environment." Because the training didn't require any student to disavow his or her religious beliefs, the judge said, no religious opt-out was required.
The ACLU, representing five students from the original Boyd County case, joined the school district in fighting the ADF lawsuit. The ACLU argued 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 adopt the training in 2004 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."
A secondary question in the lawsuit was already worked out several months ago when the ACLU agreed with the ADF that a portion of the school's code of conduct that told students that they couldn't express their views on controversial topics violated the Constitution. The parties together came up with a new policy that both addressed harassment and protected students' First Amendment rights.
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 Lili Lutgens and David Friedman of the ACLU of Kentucky.