‘Equal Access’ In Utah: Gay-Straight Alliances At Public Schools Have The Religious Right To Thank

Gay-Straight Alliance clubs have been formed at three high schools in St. George, an ultra-conservative city of about 72,000 in Utah’s extreme southwest corner.

Back in the 1980s, a number of Religious Right groups got a bright idea: Since public schools can’t legally sponsor prayer and other religious activities, perhaps it would be better to foster the creation of student-run clubs in high schools that would meet during non-instructional time to pray, read the Bible and talk about religion. A draft bill was proposed in Congress.

Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union and allied organizations were deeply concerned. We argued that congressional promotion of religious clubs in public schools was constitutionally problematic. At a minimum, the bill would have to be expanded to allow for other types of clubs. (AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, who was working for the ACLU at the time, was the one who made this suggestion.)

Religious Right attorneys agreed to the change, and thus was born the “Equal Access Act.” It became law in 1984 and was later upheld by the Supreme Court. In a nutshell, the law states that if a public secondary school allows any student-run club that is not directly related to the curriculum, it must allow them all (with very limited exceptions – a school doesn’t have to allow a club on how to make bombs).

So, if students are permitted to form an evangelical Christian club, others can form a Jewish club or an atheist club. And the clubs need not be related to religion. Students can form clubs based on politics, hobbies, social issues or other topics. The idea, codified in the act’s name, is “equal access” for everyone.

When the act became operational, Americans United reminded the Religious Right that students might form some clubs that fundamentalists don’t like. Religious Right leaders insisted that was a price they were willing to pay.

The Religious Right got its Bible clubs. Students in public schools around the country formed a lot of them. Attendance was voluntary, and things seemed to be working out.

But of course students didn’t stop there. As we predicted, they began forming other types of clubs. Before long, students started using the Equal Access Act to form gay-straight alliances. And guess what? Some Religious Right groups don’t like that.

The New York Times reported yesterday that gay-straight alliances now exist in about 4,000 public high schools and have even reached Utah.

The appearance of these clubs in heavily Mormon Utah came only after a long struggle – and dogged opposition from the Religious Right and its political allies. At one point, legislators in the state shut down all student-run clubs rather than allow gay-themed groups. When that proved impractical, lawmakers in 2007 passed a measure requiring parental permission to join the clubs and limiting discussion of topics such as human sexuality.

The 2007 law sounds to be of dubious constitutionality to me. It was clearly designed to squelch gay-straight alliances – as the Religious Right freely admits.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, which wields a lot of clout in the state, told The Times that requiring parental permission would deter some students from joining and as a result, “there’s not a lot of purpose in being there, and the clubs end up being pretty small.”

But to their credit, Utah students persevered. They began forming gay-straight alliances at high schools in Salt Lake City and recently achieved something of a breakthrough: Clubs were formed at three high schools in St. George, an ultra-conservative city of about 72,000 in Utah’s extreme southwest corner. The clubs were formed after Darcy Goddard, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, warned education officials in St. George that they were in violation of federal law.

The Times reported that a teacher who advises one of the new clubs said members were not deterred by the restrictions placed on them by Utah legislators. As The Times put it, “The students, he said, seemed more interested in making friends and planning events.”

The students in St. George still face hurdles. Bethany Coyle, a senior who formed the gay-straight alliance at Dixie High School, said some resistance remains among her peers. But now that the alliance has won the legal right to exist – and it only took 26 years! – it can work on increasing tolerance.

To be fair, I should note that some conservative groups, like the Christian Legal Society, understand that equal access is for everyone. Others, like the Eagle Forum, still don’t get it. That’s a shame.

The Religious Right, after all, helped pioneer the equal access concept. Is it too much to expect the organizations to actually support it?