FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
OKEECHOBEE, FL - The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today asked a federal court to order school officials to allow the Okeechobee Gay-Straight Alliance to start meeting. The motion seeks to grant the students access to meet on campus for the duration of the legal proceedings.
The Okeechobee High School (OHS) Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) has been blocked from meeting on campus by the school district since its members first tried to form the club in September 2006.
The federal Equal Access Act stipulates that when a school allows any non-curricular club to meet on campus, it must allow all non-curricular clubs to meet on campus. Refusal by OHS officials to comply with the Act by discriminating against one segment of the population is a clear violation of law since other clubs are permitted to meet at school, the ACLU said.
"These brave students in Okeechobee are trying to promote tolerance and acceptance while fostering a safe and open environment for everyone to learn," said Rob Rosenwald, attorney for the ACLU of Florida's LGBT Advocacy Project. "Clearly it is not just the students that need to be taught tolerance, but the administrators and faculty who are relegating gay and lesbian students to a second-class status and sending a message of prejudice."
Recent attempts by school officials to claim that the school's abstinence-only policy would be violated if the club met on school grounds are unfounded, the ACLU says. The GSA's goal is to provide a safe, supportive environment for students to talk about anti-gay bias and harassment. Students say they want to start a GSA to work together to promote tolerance, understanding and acceptance of one another, regardless of sexual orientation.
GSAs around the country have met with similar opposition and have been upheld in court as legal by the Equal Access Act.Federal courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of GSAs where schools tried to block their formation, upholding students' right to form the groups in Salt Lake City, Utah; Orange County, California; Franklin Township, Indiana; Boyd County, Kentucky; and Osseo, Minnesota.
"We just want to be able to meet on campus like every other student," said Yasmin Gonzalez, President of the OHS Gay-Straight Alliance. "I may be able to move on when I graduate, but we have to stand up against the hatred and bigotry today to ensure that everyone is treated as equals tomorrow."
The ACLU sued on behalf of the Okeechobee GSA in November alleging that the school is discriminating against the club based on some members' sexual orientation.
Over 100 GSAs currently exist in Florida, according to recent data from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). GSAs have been instrumental in encouraging a feeling of belonging for students who are often the targets of bullying and hatred by students and teachers.