Equal Access: How The Religious Right Helped Launch Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs In Public High Schools

The reason so many high schools have gay-straight alliances is because of the Religious Right.

Last night during dinner, my daughter Claire mentioned that some of her friends who attend another high school are preparing for a gang of protesters to descend on their school. Members of Westboro Baptist Church are coming to town!

You've probably heard of this crew. Westboro Baptist and its pastor, Fred Phelps, are best known for picketing at the funerals of fallen military personnel. Their theology is somewhat incoherent, but the Westboro-ites seem to believe that the war in Iraq is God's punishment on the nation for tolerating gay people.

So why are they coming to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Md.? According to Claire, the Westboro contingent is upset because that school, like many other public high schools these days, has a gay-straight alliance student club.

"What is the matter with these parents and adults who sit on the sidelines and allow this school to have a 'Diversity Club' and a 'GSA'[A/N: GSA- Gay Straight Alliance]? Do you think God does not see what is happening with you rebels? You are each and all in big trouble because you insist that we come and speak with you," thunders Phelps on the Westboro Web site.

I had to snicker at that. I explained to Claire that the reason so many high schools have gay-straight alliances is because of the Religious Right!

It all goes back to 1984, when Congress – prodded primarily by conservative Christian groups – passed the Equal Access Act. The act states that, under most circumstances, public secondary schools must allow a wide range of student-run clubs to meet during "non-instructional" time.

There are a few exceptions, but generally speaking, students can form Christian clubs, Jewish clubs, Muslim clubs, atheist clubs, etc. The act is not limited to religion. Students can form Republican clubs, photography clubs, chess clubs and so on. These clubs are not sponsored by the school, but they must be given space to meet and be treated equally.

Religious Right groups hoped that students would form evangelical Christian clubs at schools – and many students did so. But other types of clubs began springing up as well.

At first, some clubs met with resistance. In 1998, a student in Grand Blanc, Mich., tried to start an atheist club. When school officials tried to block him, the young man, Micah White, called Americans United. AU attorneys contacted the school, and officials quickly relented. Micah started his club.

Eventually, students began using the Equal Access Act to form gay-straight alliances. The trend really caught on. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network estimates there are more than 4,000 of these clubs at high schools and colleges across the country.

Gay-rights groups have been quick to seize on the Act. Lamba Legal, a leading legal organization that defends the rights of gays and lesbians, has published materials to help students understand their rights under the Equal Access Act.

Of course, none of this is what the Religious Right had in mind when its lawyers began pushing the equal access concept. Back when the act was being debated in Congress and when it was litigated before the Supreme Court (surviving on an 8-1 vote) in 1990, AU warned the Religious Right to be ready for the consequences. We pointed out that students would form all kinds of groups, including some that fundamentalists Christians don't like.

To be fair, I should point out that some Religious Right attorneys and activists are fine with this. They get what equal access is all about. But others continue to whine every time a new atheist club or gay-straight alliance is launched.

I don't expect any of this to matter to the gang at Westboro Baptist Church. We're not talking about a lot of brain cells among that crew. But I do hope the students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School bone up on this history because I hear that some of them are planning a peaceful counter protest when Phelps and Co. arrive on Nov. 10.

It would be helpful for the students who support tolerance, diversity, equality and gay rights to remember that their right to meet at school to discuss these issues comes largely through the courtesy of the Religious Right.

Maybe they could even explain that to Phelps.