A new lawsuit filed this week seeks to overturn a state law in Utah barring teachers from discussing homosexuality people in a positive way.
The 38-page complaint filed in federal court Friday challenges the “Anti-Gay School Law” on the basis it violates Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Equal Access Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“[T]he Anti-Gay School Laws single out ‘homosexuality’ and LGBT persons for negative treatment, improperly restrict student and teacher speech about ‘homosexuality’ and LGBT persons, and create a culture of silence and non-acceptance for LGBT students and teachers, all of which puts LGBT students at heightened risk of isolation, harassment, and longterm negative impacts on their health and well-being while serving no legitimate state interest,” the complaint says.
The litigation is the first-of-its-kind to challenge such laws, which currently also exist in South Carolina, Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said in statement the “Anti-Gay School Laws” throughout the country are “some of the last remaining anti-LGBT laws that are currently being enforced in the country.”
“And they’re especially odious, because they explicitly apply to school classes on every subject,” Williams said. “These laws send a message that our lives are shameful and must be hidden and censored. They create a deadly culture of silence and non-acceptance, causing harms that can never fully be undone.”
The lawsuit was filed by the National Center of Lesbian Rights and the D.C.-based law firm Ropes & Gray LLP on behalf of Equality Utah and three anonymous Utah-based plaintiffs: two students and a former student.
Kate Kendell, a Utah native and executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in a statement the time has come “for these dangerous laws to be struck from the books.”
“The U.S. Supreme Court has held that sexual orientation is ‘a normal expression of human sexuality’ and that LGBT people must be treated equally under the law,” Kendell said. “These laws openly discriminate against LGBT students and teachers. They stigmatize vulnerable young people who should be celebrated and supported, and they censor constitutionally protected free speech, including students’ right to receive accurate information about sexual orientation and LGBT people.”
Among the plaintiffs are gay public high school student in Cache County, a lesbian public high school student in Salt Lake County and a gender non-conforming seven-year-old who formerly attended public elementary school in Weber County.
According to the complaint, the gender non-conforming seven-year-old, identified as John Doe and a child who sometimes wears girl’s clothes, faced harassment, physical abuse and sexual intimidation, but his school didn’t take adequate steps to address the harassment on the basis of the state law.
“A final incident involving potential sexual abuse was particularly traumatic,” the complaint says. “One day, John’s main tormentor followed John into the school bathroom during recess. John’s absence was not noticed for several minutes. By the time John was found, he was highly upset and visibly shaken. He later experienced vomiting and severe panic attacks. He would not tell his mother what happened to him in the bathroom, and still refuses to talk about this incident two years later.”
The complaint says the boy drew a picture afterwards of how the incident made him feel, which was a page of angry scribbles. His mother reported this incident to school authorities, but they didn’t adequately investigate it. After this incident, the boy didn’t return to school.
The named defendants in the case are the Utah State Board of Education; Sydnee Dickson in her capacity as State Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of Utah; as well as the school district in which each of the plaintiffs went to the schools and those district’s respective boards of education.
Douglass Hallward-Dremeier, a partner at Ropes & Gray who argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the marriage equality, said in a statement laws like Utah serve only to harm children.
“We are honored to represent Equality Utah and these brave students and their families in this historic case,” Hallward-Dremeier said. “These discriminatory laws are outdated, harmful, and blatantly unconstitutional. They serve no purpose other than to isolate and stigmatize young people who deserve to be fully supported and embraced.”
The Washington Blade has placed a request in with the Utah State Board of Education seeking comment on the litigation.