Metro Weekly

Federal judge rules schools must grant Gay-Straight Alliances equal access to resources

Judge finds Indiana high school's decision to bar its GSA from accessing advertising and fundraising resources violated LGBTQ students' rights.

Pride flag, lgbtq
Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

A federal judge has ruled that an Indiana school district must allow LGBTQ students in Gay Straight Alliances to access the same resources that other student clubs and groups are entitled to access. 

U.S. District Judge James Sweeney II ruled that the South Madison School Corporation violated the Equal Access Act when it allowed Pendleton Heights High School to bar its Gay-Straight Alliance from advertising itself, raising funds, or being listed in the school handbook, like other student groups.

The GSA’s treatment by the school was previously been raised at a school board meeting last spring, when students protested a directive ordering teachers to remove LGBTQ Pride flags from classrooms, on the grounds that teachers are supposed to remain “neutral” and not engage in “political speech.” LGBTQ students had contended the flags were the only way they could identify which teachers were affirming and could provide a safe space for them, reports The Herald Bulletin.

In September, the school’s GSA enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing that its members’ constitutional rights had been violated when it was treated differently from other organizations.

Last Wednesday, Sweeney issued a preliminary injunction to bar the South Madison School Corporation, and Pendleton Heights High School, in particular, from enforcing the prohibitions it had placed on the GSA while the case moves forward on its merits. Sweeney did not rule on the validity of the GSA’s claims that its First Amendment rights had been violated or that the prohibition had violated the students’ right to equal protection under the law.

The school had initially protested the lawsuit, claiming it treated all “corporation-sponsored” clubs — which are allegedly curriculum-related — equally by allowing them to access advertising and fundraising resources. But groups like the GSA or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which are “noncorporation-sponsored,” are only allowed to meet on school grounds, not access additional resources.

But Sweeney found that the school’s claims of equal treatment were lacking, ruling that it had violated the Equal Access Act. Additionally, he found that groups that the school had deemed “curriculum-related,” such as the Outdoor Adventure Club, did not meet the criteria established by a 1990 Supreme Court case, Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens.

Under the guidelines in the Mergens case, for an organization to be deemed “curriculum-related,” it must be required for a course, students must receive academic credit for participating, the organization’s subject matter must be related to the body of courses as a whole, or the subject matter must be taught in a regularly-offered course. But the Outdoor Adventure Club, for example, did not meet those criteria and therefore was not entitled to special or preferential treatment over the GSA.

Related: Tennessee parents label teacher who sponsored a middle school GSA a “predator,” accuse her of “indoctrination”

Pendleton Heights High School insisted that the Outdoor Adventure Club was curricular because it was “directly related to the physical education curriculum” of the school. But Sweeney noted that the school’s argument was “nearly identical to the one the Supreme Court rejected in Mergens,” in which officials at a Nebraska high school had justified barring a Bible study group while allowing a scuba diving club to meet on school grounds, reports The Indiana Lawyer.

The school had also claimed that an injunction would force it to allow all “noncurriculum-related” groups to publicize themselves, turning school announcements into a lengthy, unmanageable affair, blanketing the school’s bulletin boards with flyers, and forcing the school to reprint the student handbook. But Sweeney rejected those claims as well, noting that the school could impose a limit on the number of flyers per club, or by preventing all noncurriculum-related clubs from meeting on campus altogether.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which represented the students in the GSA, celebrated Sweeney’s decision to issue the preliminary injunction.

“While this isn’t the first time the ACLU of Indiana has had to take on a public school for treating a GSA group differently than other student led organizations, we hope that public schools throughout the state will take notice and forgo future challenges by providing equal treatment to all student groups,” the organization said in a statement.

See also:

FDA approves injectable PrEP medication that’s more effective than Truvada

Air Force authorizes use of pronouns, including gender-neutral ones, in official emails

DC gay bars will require proof of coronavirus vaccination for entry

Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!