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Gay-Straight Alliance Must Be Allowed at Fla. High School, Judge Rules

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A federal judge has ruled that a Florida school district must permit a gay-straight allliance club to meet on a high school campus, rejecting the district's arguments that allowing such a club would be contrary to its abstinence-only sex education program.

The July 29 ruling by U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore of Miami is the latest in a line of decisions in the federal courts that have generally required schools to treat GSAs on equal terms with other non-curricular student clubs. The judge said the case involving a proposed GSA at Okeechobee High School in the Okeechobee County school district was governed by the federal Equal Access Act.

That law bars federally funded secondary schools from denying equal access to student non-curricular clubs on the basis of religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the club members' speech.

The Okeechobee district argued that recognizing a gay-straight alliance would compromise its abstinence-only program, which is promoted both by the federal government and the state of Florida to teach that abstinence from sex promotes monogamous relationships in the context of marriage.

Judge Moore said the district "has not clarified how dialogue promoting tolerance towards non-homosexual individuals is antithetical to principles of abstinence."

The judge indicated that the school district's concern about the "premature sexualization" of adolescents was legitimate, but he doubted that the GSA was intended to promote that. The district could take steps to ensure that the club avoided sex education topics "reserved for instruction by qualified teachers in a classroom environment."

Judge Moore cited three other federal district court rulings under the Equal Access Act that have upheld the right of students to form gay-straight alliances. But he noted one contrary ruling in which a federal court in Texas denied recognition of a gay student group because Texas law criminally penalized homosexual acts between minors and the group's Web site had links to lewd and obscene content. The judge in that 2004 Texas case, Caudillo v. Lubbock Independent School District, cited language in the Equal Access Act that allows school officials to "protect the well-being of students."

The American Civil Liberties Union, which backed the lawsuit by students seeking to form the gay-straight alliance, issued this press release on the decision.

The Associated Press reports here.

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Equal access and equal protection, whether in the civil or criminal arenas, is always a challenge to enforce and make a reality. Whether it's battling cultural norms or legal red tape, making the law equal for all can take decades.

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