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Buttars bill takes aim at gay clubs

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A bill that its sponsor says would stamp out "a Nazi club, abortion club or sodomy club" in Utah public schools was unveiled Tuesday.

But some question whether SB97's language justifies banning gay-straight alliances in public schools, which sponsoring Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, has said would be the bill's aim.

SB97 directs schools to deny clubs or their use of school buildings if their charter or activities would encourage criminal conduct, promote bigotry, or involve human sexuality.

Involving human sexuality is defined as "promoting or encouraging self-labeling by students in terms of sexual orientation; disclosing attitudes or personal conduct of students or members of their families regarding sexual orientation, attitudes or beliefs; advocating, approving or engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage; or presenting or discussing information relating to the use of contraceptive devices or substances, regardless of whether the use is for purposes of contraception or personal health."

Clubs also can be denied if the school deems it necessary to protect the "physical, emotional, psychological or moral well-being of students and faculty," maintain order, protect parent and student rights, maintain "boundaries of socially appropriate behavior" or ensure compliance with all applicable laws and policies.

A school's governing board would determine whether a club meets any of those definitions.

The bill is "designed to catch all non-desirable clubs, be it a Nazi club, abortion club or sodomy club," Buttars said. "Schools need to have the ability to control and regulate."

The bill also sets up procedures for authorizing curriculum-related and extra-curricular clubs, requires a faculty member be assigned to oversee them, allows a school to terminate a club for violating the bill's language and an appeals process, and requires parental permission for membership in any club.

Some parts of the bill read like Granite School District's clubs policy, said Martin Bates, attorney and assistant to the superintendent there. But he's not sure if gay-straight alliances could be excluded under its sexuality definition.

"If to join the club you have to say I'm gay or I'm straight, sure, that's a label. But (the word gay-straight alliance) isn't putting a label on a kid; this is the name of a club. It's going to take a court to decide it," said Bates, who says he saw a draft of the bill in recent weeks.

Fourteen gay-straight alliances exist in Utah public schools, according to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Utah.

The alliances grabbed headlines recently when one was formed at Provo High School, a first in conservative Utah County.

While some school administrators characterized the clubs as community service groups, Buttars believes gay-straight alliances are "staging areas and conditioning clubs promoting sexuality."

Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka has said Buttars' bill makes it clear that laws regulating what can and can't be said about sexuality in Utah public schools leave no room for a school club that on its face indicates sexuality.

Buttars believes his bill would survive a court challenge.

But Carol Lear, attorney and director of school law and legislation for the State Office of Education, isn't so sure. She also questions why the bill, when much of it is already contained in state law, is necessary.

"But I think (Buttars) might have poisoned the well, because he's been so outspoken about the purpose and the original intent of the legislation, Lear said. "I think that, again, courts get to look at legislative history when they review the constitutionality of legislation."

In related news, Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, has filed HB393, "Public Education Club Amendments." The bill's language is still being drafted, Tilton said.

But it would say "having clubs of a sexual nature validated or supported inside the school system is a violation of the law and . . . morally irresponsible, Tilton said. It also would be "designed to curtail the sponsorship or sanctioning of sexual oriented clubs, whether homosexual or heterosexual."

"The educational factor of whether someone has a sexual orientation is best left . . . outside the school environment," he said.

Tilton said he filed the bill request before knowing of Buttars' intentions, and is working with Buttars on the matter.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com