Federal Judge Rules Okeechobee, FL Students Can Form Gay-Straight Alliance Club

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
April 6, 2007 12:00 am

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In a Legal First, Judge Finds GSA Is Not a "Sex-Based" Club; Doesn't Conflict with Abstinence-Only Education

OKEECHOBEE, FL - The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today welcomed a district court decision ordering Okeechobee High School to officially recognize and allow equal access to the Okeechobee High School Gay Straight Alliance.

"This decision sends a clear message to other schools that they face a similar fate in federal court if they choose to discriminate by deliberately misrepresenting GSAs as something they're not," said lead attorney Rob Rosenwald, Director of the ACLU of Florida's LGBT Advocacy Project and John C. Graves Fellow. "Violence and harassment against gay students is a rampant problem in Florida."

"This is great news," added Yasmin Gonzalez, an ACLU plaintiff and president of the Okeechobee GSA. "I am so glad that we're going to be allowed to meet on campus just like kids in other clubs already do," "Even though I am graduating this year, I now know that by standing up to intolerance today, future students at OHS will benefit from a more open environment and not have to endure the same treatment from our school in the future."

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge K. Michael Moore is the first to find that GSAs are not by definition "sex-based" clubs, rejecting the school's argument that the club that would violate its abstinence-only education policy. The order was granted primarily on the basis that the Federal Equal Access Act requires schools that allow any extracurricular club to meet on campus to allow all clubs to meet on campus. The ACLU has won other recent GSA victories across the nation, from Madera, California to White County, Georgia. This was also the first time a federal court has heard an Equal Access Act challenge in Florida.

The preliminary injunction order will allow the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight students to meet on campus during the course of the case to discuss issues about bullying, tolerance and discrimination. GSAs across the state and country have been shown to help gay and straight students feel safer at school, and provide an open forum for students to discuss their fears, hopes and challenges.

Rosenwald noted that the Florida legislature is currently considering a bill banning bullying and harassment in Florida schools that does not protect these vulnerable students. "Okeechobee High School administrators have sent the message that their gay and lesbian students are less deserving of the law's protection," he said. "The Florida legislature should help by specifically protecting gay students from bullying and harassment."

The ACLU filed the federal lawsuit in November after students at Okeechobee High School were denied access to meet on campus by their principal, Toni Wiersma. Senior Yasmin Gonzalez approached the ACLU and after several failed attempts by the ACLU to convince the school to comply with the Federal Equal Access Act, the lawsuit was filed. After hearing oral arguments from both sides in February, the judge denied the school's motion to dismiss the case. Today's ruling is one more victory in the road to fairness and equality in Florida, the ACLU said

Judge Moore's order for preliminary injunction can be viewed online at: http://www.aclufl.org/pdfs/Legal%20PDfs/GSA_PI_order.pdf.

Gay-Straight Alliance of Okeechobee high School et al v. Okeechobee School Board was filed in U.S. Federal Court on November 15, 2006. More information can be found at www.aclufl.org/issues/lesbian_gay_rights/index.cfm.

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