PHILADELPHIA – The American Civil Liberties Union is threatening legal action against a central Pennsylvania school board that denied students’ request to form a Gay-Straight Alliance club at their high school.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania contends the Chambersburg Area School Board’s vote is a violation of the federal Equal Access Act. Congress originally passed the law in 1984 to address what lawmakers had called “perceived widespread discrimination” against religious speech in public schools but has since been applied to organizations including Gay-Straight Alliance clubs.
In a Tuesday letter sent to school officials on behalf of the students, the ACLU said the board has until Friday to reverse its decision or face legal action. Federal courts have consistently upheld the law’s protection for students who want to establish Gay-Student Alliance groups, ACLU attorney Molly Tack-Hooper said.
“Schools need to understand that they cannot pick and choose which clubs to allow,” she said. “The same law that ensures the right of GSAs to exist also protects the existence of a variety of clubs, from scrapbooking to religious clubs.”
The ACLU noted that previously approved Chambersburg Senior High School extracurricular groups include the Bible Club, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Ping Pong Club.
Without approval, groups can’t use the school’s public-address system, post fliers, participate as a group in school events or hold fundraisers.
Equality Pennsylvania Executive Director Ted Martin urged the school board to reconsider and “do the right thing” for its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and their supporters.
“Given the lack of an LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying law in Pennsylvania, local school districts are left on their own to ensure safe environments for LGBT students to learn and to be themselves,” he said.
About two dozen Chambersburg students first proposed the Gay-Student Alliance at the January school board meeting and were told their bylaws needed revisions. When they returned Feb. 27, the board voted 5-4 against approving the group.
Nearly 6,000 people have signed an online petition at Change.org started by 2010 Chambersburg graduate Thomas McCalmont, who said he was bullied daily at the school because of his sexual orientation and was driven to thoughts of suicide by his senior year.
The school district superintendent’s office did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Gay-Student Alliances have existed in high schools nationwide for decades to provide a supportive environment for LGBT students, educate others about minority sexual orientations and discourage discrimination and bullying. They operate much like other clubs, meeting regularly and conducting community service projects within school rules.