Two months after a gay-straight alliance club started meeting at Provo High, a state senator said he plans to run a bill in the 2006 Legislature that would prohibit such clubs in Utah's public high schools.
Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, already taking on the public school establishment with legislation to require schools to teach a religion-based alternative to the theory of evolution, is now aiming at high school gay-straight alliances as well. His effort is backed by the conservative Utah Eagle Forum.
"I'm concerned about gay clubs," Buttars said Wednesday, a day after opening a bill file regarding extra-curricular clubs. Buttars said his goal is to ban gay student associations from meeting on public school property.
"In my mind, if you are in the chess club, what do you talk about? Chess," Buttars said. "If you are in the dance club, what do you talk about? Dance. If you are in a gay club, what do you talk about? I just don't believe members of sexual orientation clubs should be sanctioned by the public schools what they are talking about even a part of the public schools. They should not be allowed to have that on school property at all. It's just wrong."
Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka says Buttars' bill would simply clarify existing law, which curtails what can and can't be said in terms of sexuality in public school health classes, school clubs and even surveys. And it certainly leaves no room for a school club that on its face indicates sexuality.
"That's talking about the sex the people involved practice . . . clearly violating the law," Ruzicka said. "We're looking at the law saying, what do we need to do to help the districts? Most of the districts don't want the clubs. . . . Provo certainly wouldn't have a club if it didn't have this fear (of lawsuits) hanging over its head . . . (or) if it were up to parents."
Buttars' bill would tweak Utah law to make that more clear, Ruzicka said.
But opponents say Buttars is wasting his time and taxpayer dollars should the bill pass defending an act that would be struck down in the courts.
"Oh, that silly Sen. Buttars," said Dani Eyer, executive director of the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "What would we do without him? He just doesn't have a nuanced concept of constitutionally mandated fairness and freedoms."
"Why do this now?" asks Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, an attorney and one of two openly gay Utah legislators. "My gosh, the East High School club case was landmark law for the whole country."
In 1995, a group of East High students asked to form a gay-straight alliance, resulting in a firestorm of debate over homosexuality. The Salt Lake City Board of Education responded by eliminating all non-curriculum clubs, a move that took out groups including Young Republicans and Students Against Drunk Driving.
Students protested. The Legislature held a special session to discuss club restrictions. National headlines and lawsuits ensued. The district won one federal lawsuit challenging club policy. But in a second, a judge ruled it must allow People Respecting Important Social Movements (PRISM), which students wanted to create to discuss issues affecting the gay community, until the lawsuit was resolved.
The school board in 2000 allowed all clubs to meet either as curriculum-related "school clubs" or extracurricular "student clubs," essentially ending the fight.
The East High Gay-Straight Alliance today is a well-attended, service-centered student club, assistant principal Jeff Herr said.
"They haven't been controversial or anything," Herr said. "Frankly, I'm not sure if half the kids in school know what the GSA is now. That's how mainstream the commitment and the contribution of the club is."
Today, 14 gay-straight alliances have been established in Utah public schools, said Stan Burnett, director of youth programs for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Utah, which recently hosted an alliance summit.
Provo High School's alliance is the first in Utah County and among the newest. It started meeting in October when attorneys told the district to let the students meet and firm up its club policy, which now distinguishes between curriculum clubs and non-curriculum clubs, which require parental permission slips.
"We have asked for an opinion from the attorney general's office," said Provo District student services director Greg Hudnall, who was surprised by Buttars' efforts. "We want to make sure we're on solid ground. If the Legislature gets a new bill passed, we would want a new opinion from the attorney general."
The Provo alliance brought the issue to a head again, Ruzicka said. But the legislation is about more than that.
"It's about . . . having a safe place to send our children to school where they don't have to worry about the environment, where parents can trust the teachers and advisers there to uphold high moral standards," Ruzicka said. "This does not help the young people; this is very damaging to them."
But Hillcrest High School assistant principal David Breen says the alliance there one of four that have been set up in Jordan District schools over the years is much like a support group.
"The kids just get together and talk about how they can be part of the school. That's their whole conversation," Breen said. "I think they've made a big difference with the kids that are involved. . . . (We should) definitely keep it around, no question about it."
Burnett says some alliances talk about civic issues and bring in guest speakers on current events. Sex isn't part of the discussion that would be illegal under Utah law. Clubs at Bountiful and Hillcrest high schools, for example, have teachers assigned to them.
"They give youth both gay and straight kids a place to come together and talk about issues that affect them . . . and how to improve the school environment by talking to teachers and others in the schools, educating them about diversity and acceptance," said Valerie Larabee, executive director of the GLBT center, which held an inaugural meeting for a Utah chapter of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) Wednesday.
Jordan District superintendent Barry Newbold believes a ban would have far-reaching consequences under federal "equal access" laws.
"Going after a single club or group is a very small piece of a larger legal issue as it relates to open and closed forums," he said. "This would essentially create closed forums on all school campuses," meaning no extra-curricular clubs.
"You have to let all clubs in or ban all clubs," Eyer said. "It is settled law."
But Ruzicka says the bill won't have to deal with equal access issues.
"Equal access does not allow for illegal or immoral activities, (nor) does our Utah law. Would they allow a marijuana club? A tobacco club? Because we have an equal access law doesn't mean they have to allow every club in there," she said. "We do not want to violate equal access. Districts (allowing gay-straight alliances) either don't understand the law, they're ignoring the law, or they're under pressure." Buttars said he personally is not afraid of a lawsuit. "I know the school districts and some others are scared of the ACLU. Not me."
The East High lawsuit cost the state $175,000, and the state's risk management division declined to fund an appeal of the PRISM ruling.
McCoy calls Buttars' timing curious. "I suppose it has to do with the Provo (High alliance and) being an election year."
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It is not unusual for some Republicans to introduce conservative, moral legislation in an election year, and if Democratic lawmakers vote against the bills then GOP challengers have an issue to take after the Democratic incumbents. Already, several Democratic legislators have complained about an anti-abortion bill that will be introduced when legislators convene Jan. 16.
"I hope this doesn't pass," McCoy said of the clubs bill. "It is the mantra of the far-right not to be deterred by a threat of litigation, but Utah taxpayers suffer."
Contributing: Laura Hancock, Deborah Bulkeley
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