Gay-Straight Alliance gets board's OK

February 10, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

How they voted

The Waynesboro (Pa.) Area School Board voted 6-3 Tuesday night in favor of allowing the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance at Waynesboro Area Senior High School.

Voting for: K. Marilyn Smith, Christopher Devers, Pat Heefner, Gregory Ochoa, Mindy Rouzer and John Fitz

Voting against: Leland Lemley, Firmadge Crutchfield and Edward Wilson.

WAYNESBORO, Pa. -- A 6-3 vote by the Waynesboro Area School Board on Tuesday formally approved a Gay-Straight Alliance at the high school, bringing a conclusion to almost a month of passionate arguments from several sides of the issue.

The board debated the decision for an hour and a half after listening to almost two hours of public comment. Much of the board's time was dominated by board member Leland Lemley, who reminded his colleagues that he can hold the floor for as long as he wants.

He asked a series of lengthy questions about the student club forming at Waynesboro Area Senior High School.


"The beautiful part of this is I don't have to answer you," board member Chris Devers said.

Lemley pointed out that no GSA cases have been heard by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes the region.

Cases presented elsewhere dealt with the federal Equal Access Act and how it prohibits "restriction of open forum on basis of religious, philosophical or other speech content prohibited." The Associated Press reported Tuesday that students in Florida, working with the American Civil Liberties Union, sued their school board on those grounds.

"You have options," Lemley said.

"You're right. We can break the law," board member Gregory Ochoa countered.

One Texas case from 2004, Caudillo v. Lubbock, rejected a Gay-Straight Alliance because of questionable material on an affiliated Web site. Other cases, however, upheld the club's formation in schools because of the Equal Access Act.

A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union attended the school board meeting and presented a letter written by James D. Esseks, a litigation director for the organization.

In it, Esseks wrote, "If a public high school allows any student group whose purpose is not directly related to the school's curriculum to meet on school grounds during lunch or before or after school, then it can't deny other student groups the same access to the school because of the content of their proposed discussions."

"Schools may not pick and choose among clubs based on what they think students should or should not discuss," he wrote.

Board president K. Marilyn Smith said board members briefly discussed the merits of abolishing all extracurricular clubs as a way to solve the dilemma. The board felt the benefits of those clubs necessitated keeping them active, she said.

Some board members proposed changing the name of the Gay-Straight Alliance, and some shared concerns about the connection to a national parent organization they described as questionable. The Gay-Straight Alliance Network claims to support more than 650 clubs across the country.

"I don't agree with the fact that we don't have any options," board member Ed Wilson said, prior to voting "no" based on feedback he got from constituents.

The board's legal counsel, James D. Flower, told a Herald-Mail reporter that he felt the decision that was made best protects the school district against potential litigation.

Earlier, Lemley said legal interpretations are worth as much as a roll of toilet paper.

"You just crapped on the Constitution," a man in the audience interjected.

The club's bylaws state that members will meet for 45 minutes after school every other Wednesday. The meetings, which promote confidential discussions, would "establish a 'safety net' for LGBT students who feel shut out, alone or a sense of not belonging in an intolerant environment," the bylaws state.

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