Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Victory for Equality

This past Tuesday, the Waynesboro Area School District’s school board voted to approve a new club – the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).

The decision came after hours of public comment, during which many community members quoted Bible verses and expressed concern that the club would be in violation of “God’s law.” A few of the community and board members favoring the GSA responded with more Bible verses, citing concepts such as loving one’s neighbor, not judging, and obeying one’s government.

Regardless of how sincerely held these beliefs are, however, this theological debate was irrelevant to the issue at hand – the right of public school students to form a GSA.

Among the most important founding principles of the United States is religious freedom. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This means that each individual is free to follow whatever religion he or she chooses – or no religion at all – and that the government may not promote one over another. Over the past two hundred years, many religious groups that were persecuted in their home countries came to America because of this freedom. Among these groups were the Quakers, Puritans, Mennonites, Amish, and Catholics. Even today, individuals who have been the victims of religious persecution seek asylum in the United States.

One of the many laws enshrining this right to religious freedom in the United States is the Equal Access Act, which deals with religious freedom as it relates to after-school clubs in public schools. Passed in 1984 with substantial support from Christian organizations seeking to protect student religious groups, the law states that if a school allows any noncurricular group – a 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 may not deny this access to any other noncurricular group. The law also specifically states that a school may not pick and choose between after-school clubs based on the “religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”

Under the Equal Access Act, a school that allows a noncurricular group such as a drama club, chess club, or chapter of Students Against Drunk Driving to meet on school grounds must also allow a Christian Bible study group to meet – and it likewise must permit a GSA. The district may not choose to privilege religious beliefs that view homosexuality as sinful over the beliefs in tolerance, diversity, and the value of love in all its forms that a GSA represents. Even if there are only a few students in the district who want to form a GSA, community members may not “vote” on what religious, philosophical, or moral beliefs these few may follow. The rights of GSAs under the Equal Access Act have been upheld in numerous court cases in Florida, Minnesota, California, and other states.

Many of those who spoke in favor of the new Waynesboro GSA cited the non-religious benefits of such a group. GSAs provide a safe space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students. Members provide emotional support to each other and work together to combat the homophobia, discrimination, and harassment that is commonplace in schools. Studies have shown that LGBT youth are regularly subjected to bullying, name-calling, threats, destruction of property, and physical violence at school; that they are more likely than their heterosexual peers to miss school due to fear of harassment; and that they experience higher rates of emotional distress, suicide attempts, and substance abuse as a result of the hatred and prejudice directed at them. Schools with GSAs have reported a decrease in these negative effects of homophobia.

The decision of the Waynesboro school board, therefore, not only obeys the law, it enhances the safety and emotional well-being of every child, regardless of sexual orientation.

Becca in Harrisburg


Know Your Rights: A Quick Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students (HTML PDF)
Tips on Starting a GSA
Frequently Asked Questions
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kudos the the Waynesboro School Board. With Waynesboro being a somewhat rural community far from the big city, I'm sure they were under great pressure to cave to the fundamentalist Christians. But they didn't. That speaks worlds for the board's common sense and grasp of what's right, in addition to what's constitutional.

5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is great! but there is still a long way to go. Pa law does not protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination. You have to admire any lgbtq person who is open about who they are in Pa. due to the lack of legal equality!

2:36 PM  

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