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GAY-CLUB ISSUE MAY MEAN END OF SCHOOL CLUBS

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If federal law prohibits the state from discriminating against gay and lesbian clubs at Utah schools, then some Utah senators want to eliminate all extracurricular clubs at all Utah schools.

"It is Draconian," said Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell, who is opposed to the idea. "We'd shut down the rodeo club, the debate club, the ski club. Everything."Senators invited the state school superintendent, the commissioner of higher education and representatives of the Utah Attorney General's Office to a closed meeting Tuesday to discuss litigation strategies the state could take to close the extracurricular clubs.

Lawmakers were still jittery Thursday over the secret meeting that addressed homosexuality in Utah's public and higher education systems. Some conservative senators apparently made wild accusations that teachers are advocating homosexuality among school students.

"It was so unbelievable it was hard to believe. I just sat there and shook my head," Howell said.

Senators from both parties discussed the issue Tuesday afternoon during a closed caucus that addressed litigation the state may instigate concerning the matter. Exactly what kind of lawsuit would be filed was not disclosed.

The details of the debate - and the legality of the forum - remain murky, and the secrecy surrounding the caucus was disturbing to many.

"I don't like these kind of things being said behind closed doors," said Sen. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price. "I'm glad I didn't go."

"It was a witch hunt," another lawmaker said.

Dmitrich and three other Democratic senators chose not to attend the caucus. Typically, closed caucuses exclude Democrats. When majority Republicans close a caucus, they ask the Democrats to leave. This time they specifically asked them to stay.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, was among the conservative contingent that asked educators to answer allegations that homosexual activity is being promulgated in Utah schools.

Stephenson refused to comment Thursday about his role in the meeting. "I can't violate a closed caucus," he said.

Scott Bean, state superintendent of public instruction for the Office of Education, was among those educators invited to the lunchtime caucus. Like Stephenson, he refused comment.

"Well, I really didn't know what the caucus agenda was," Bean said. He refused to discuss any detail of the senators' discussion, saying he'd given his word he'd keep silent. In fact, all senators were also sworn to secrecy.

"I think that would be unethical of me to break my word," Bean said, adding that he felt the magnitude of the meeting has been blown out of proportion.

"People take it in a really serious way and I think it was just a discussion," he said.

Whether or not the meeting was illegal is debatable. While Utah law specifically exempts political caucuses from the conditions of open meetings law, the mixed group - and its number - presents a problem, said Jeff Hunt, a media attorney and representative of the Society of Professional Journalists.

It's not common, but not unheard of, for lawmakers to conduct a joint closed caucus. Historically, it's happened once or twice a year for the past decade. And about once a year in past sessions, the governor has addressed a joint closed caucus to push his agendas.

But when a quorum of the Senate is present, and the meeting consists of such representation from both parties, it sends up a red flag, according to Hunt.

"In this case, you've got both of the parties' members in the Senate meeting, a majority of the Senate body discussing the public's business," Hunt said. "It didn't look good for them. Those things tend to backfire."

Senate Majority Leader Craig Peterson said that under existing law, legislators could close a meeting to discuss existing litigation, pending litigation or possible litigation. In this case, "We were talking specific litigation strategies," he said.

The Open Meetings Act says that meetings may be closed for strategy sessions concerning "pending or reasonably imminent litigation."

Peterson admitted Senate leaders should have followed two steps to properly conduct the caucus: to take a formal vote to close the caucus and to keep minutes of the meeting.

"We didn't do that. We were wrong," he said.

The essence of the meeting was to allow senators to hear from the attorney general's office and state Office of Education regarding litigation that may be initiated by the state, Peterson said.

"The subject, frankly - and I'm not going to tell you what we talked about - was sensitive," he said. "Everyone was told what the agenda was and anyone who said they didn't know was being less than candid. If that would have been a different subject no one would have cared."

That Senate leadership agreed they likely didn't conduct the caucus properly is the key issue, Hunt said.

The focus of the meeting, organized by Stephenson, conservative Provo Sen. Charles Stewart and Senate Majority Whip Leonard Blackham, was apparently two-fold: to discuss what could be done to stop a gay and lesbian club from organizing at East High School and to address allegation that some Utah school teachers are actively promoting homosexuality among students.

The Utah Attorney General's Office has apparently been asked to investigate legal strategies the state could initiate. But Peterson said he could not divulge who the state would sue or why they would be sued.

"I can say the state would be initiating the lawsuit, not defending itself," he said.

Peterson said reports were erroneous that senators had accused schoolteachers of advocating anal intercourse, and he denied that books from Utah schools that promote homosexuality were distributed to lawmakers.

Overall, Peterson said the meeting was "handled tastefully. There was concern expressed by everyone in the room, both from the minority party and the majority party."

The Salt Lake City School District, in which East High is located, is expected to have written policies in place regarding school clubs sometime before the end of the legislative session.