Metro Weekly

Indiana school sued for allegedly discriminating against Gay-Straight Alliance

Pendleton Heights High School's GSA is not allowed to recruit members or advertise its existence on campus, according to members

indiana, gay-straight alliance, students, high school
Photo by Stavrialena Gontzou on Unsplash

Last week, the ACLU of Indiana filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of members of a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), claiming that their high school is violating the students’ First and Fourth Amendment rights.

The ACLU said on Wednesday that Pendleton Heights High School’s principal has “indicated” that the GSA is not allowed to “publicize its existence on school bulletin boards or on the school’s radio station, while other curricular and non-curricular clubs at the school are able to do so.”

The group is allegedly prevented from recruiting members, fundraising and advertising its existence, thereby hindering its “purpose as a place of shelter, support, and education,” said the ACLU in a news release.

“This group aims to create an environment that provides support to students, during a time that otherwise might be increasingly difficult for LGBTQ students,” said Kit Malone, advocacy strategist at ACLU of Indiana, in the release. “The differential treatment aimed at Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance by administrators is unwarranted and these students must be treated in the same manner that all other student groups are treated.”

The U.S. Supreme Court defines non-curricular student groups as those that do not directly relate to courses being offered at a school. The Equal Access Act, passed in 1984 and ruled constitutional in 1990, requires secondary schools who receive federal funding to provide equal access to non-curricular clubs.

Under the law, schools cannot deny students the right to conduct meetings because of the “religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.” Exceptions can be made for groups that “materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school.” 

The Act has been used to fight opposition to gay-straight alliances in schools across the country.

“By creating additional hurdles for Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance such as censoring the group’s promotions and prohibiting fundraising, the school is infringing on these students’ rights,” said Ken Falk, ACLU of Indiana legal director, in the release.

The Indianapolis Star reported that this is not the first time LGBTQ students have claimed they were being treated unfairly. This summer, a group of Pendleton Heights students and parents appealed to the school board after teachers were told to remove pride flags from their classrooms.

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At the time, South Madison Community Schools Superintendent Mark Hall maintained that the district was not homophobic, telling the Star that teachers couldn’t display the flags because it is illegal for them to engage in political speech.

“We pride ourselves on creating an environment that is welcoming to all,” he said. “Teachers are legally obligated to maintain viewpoint neutrality during their official duties to ensure all students can focus on learning, and we can maintain educational activities and school operations.”

At a meeting in May, school board president Bill Hutton said that if the district allowed pride flags to be displayed, all other groups — including white supremacy groups — would have to be able to do the same.

Many argued that pride flags are not political speech. However, the district did not reverse its policy.

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