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Federal Appeals Court Revives Gay-Straight Alliance Suit in Florida

A federal appeals court on Tuesday reinstated a lawsuit filed by a gay-straight alliance that was denied recognition at a Florida middle school.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, held that Florida middle schools qualified as "secondary schools" under the federal Equal Access Act, which requires such secondary schools receiving federal funds to give extracurricular clubs equal access to school resources. 

The panel also overturned other rationales cited by a federal district court for throwing out the challenge of the Carver Middle School Gay-Straight Alliance in the Lake County school district in central Florida, and it sent the revived case back to the district court.

The panel opinion was written by Judge William H. Pryor Jr., a judicial conservative who is on President-elect Donald Trump's list of 21 potential U.S. Supreme Court nominees and is considered by many observers to be in the top tier of likely picks.

"We conclude that 'secondary education,' under Florida law, means at least 'courses through which a person receives high school credit that leads to the award of a high school diploma,'" Pryor said, citing a provision of state law. "Carver Middle School provides courses through which students can obtain high school credit. The Equal Access Act applies to Carver Middle School."

The case stems from efforts by students at Carver Middle School, in Leesburg, Fla., to form a gay-straight alliance club as early as the 2011-12 school year. That year, the school principal denied the application, court papers say. The next school year, a new principal referred the request to the Lake County school board, which in 2013 adopted a policy that required middle school clubs to be curriculum-related and be "limited to organizations that strengthen and promote critical thinking, business skills, athletic skills, and performing/visual arts."

During the 2013-14 school year, a student identified as H.F. submitted an application for the gay-straight alliance, which included a teacher's sponsorship and goals that included "to promote critical thinking by discussing how to address bullying and other issues confronting students at Carver Middle School."

The application was rejected by a district official as deficient because it made no attempt to explain how the club would promote critical thinking. The district administrator returned the application to the middle school principal and said it might be approved if it was resubmitted with more information on critical thinking.

Instead, the alliance and H.F. sued the district under the Equal Access Act. A federal district court ruled for the school district on several procedural grounds as well as on the rationale that the Equal Access Act did not apply because under Florida law, secondary schools refer to high schools.

In its Dec. 6 decision in Carver Middle School Gay-Straight Alliance v. School Board of Lake County, the 11th Circuit court panel reversed the district court on both the procedural issues and the Equal Access Act.

Pryor acknowledged that Florida statutes used the term "secondary school" inconsistently. But he concluded that the critical term in the federal statute was "secondary education," and that term under Florida law "means providing courses through which students can obtain high school credit."

And because Carver Middle provides such courses, the Equal Access Act applies, he said.

The decision sends the case back to federal district court, which will determine whether the gay-straight alliance has standing as an organization to pursue the suit since H.F. is no longer a student at Carver Middle School.

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