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Equality Utah files lawsuit over what it calls 'anti-gay school laws'

File- Executive Director Troy Williams of Equality Utah speaks concerning SB 107 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016.
File- Executive Director Troy Williams of Equality Utah speaks concerning SB 107 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal lawsuit by Equality Utah accuses the Utah State Board of Education, its superintendent and three school districts of enacting "anti-gay school laws" targeting LGBT students and prohibiting positive talk about homosexuality.

The lawsuit filed late Friday in Utah's U.S. District Court outlines the experiences of three students — in elementary, middle and high school — and claims the board of education's policies regarding homosexuality and LGBT student organizations violate constitutional rights of equal protection and free speech, as well as Title IX protections.

The effect is an environment the chills would-be supportive teachers, creates an unaccpeting climate for LGBT teachers, and leaves isolated LGBT students vulnerable to bullying and unable to fully participate in school activities, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is the first in the U.S. to challenge anti-gay school policies, according to a joint press release from the Equality Utah advocacy group, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the global Ropes & Gray LLP law firm.

"These 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," Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams said in a prepared statement. "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."

Emilie Wheeler, spokeswoman for the Utah State Board of Education, declined comment Saturday, saying the board has not yet had time to review the lawsuit.

However, Dave Thomas, vice chairman of the school board, called the lawsuit an "unfortunate" attempt to gain publicity.

"I know that Equality Utah has been pushing a pro gay rights agenda, which I personally oppose," Thomas said Saturday, adding that he believes the organization is using the schools as a platform.

Thomas emphasized he does not believe the state has any school policies that are unconstitutional.

Utah's school policies prohibit any positive discussion of homosexuality in classroom discussions or student clubs, prevent teachers or school officials from supporting LGBT students to protect them from harassment, and restricts formation of LGBT student clubs, according to the lawsuit. The policies also continue to reference the state's now overturned Amendment 3, a voter-approved state definition of marriage as being the union between one man and one woman, the suit states.

Equality Utah claims in the lawsuit that Utah's school policies have no legitimate purpose but "were enacted in order to express moral disapproval of 'homosexuality' and of LGBT persons and to discriminate against them."

The suit names the Utah State Board of Education and State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson as defendants in the case, as well as Jordan, Cache and Weber school districts where the three unnamed juvenile plaintiffs were enrolled. According to the claim, the three students' experiences illustrate some of the harms LGBT students across the state endure daily under Utah's policies.

The first plaintiff, a gender non-conforming 5-year-old boy in Weber County who sometimes wears girls' clothes, found himself bullied by his classmates, including physical beatings, holding his hand to a hot slide until it was burned, and pulling down his pants to see what kind of underwear he wore, according to the lawsuit.

The court documents also claim that the boy's mother reported the incidents to the school's principal and guidance counselor, as well as to her son's kindergarten teacher, none of whom investigated the issue or took steps to stop the abuse. The boy, identified as John Doe, began to experience panic attacks and frequently miss class, and has now been pulled from public school at the principal's recommendation, according to the lawsuit.

The second plaintiff is a gay high school student in Cache County identified only as James Doe who says he has endured bullying since a young age.

"By eighth grade … (the student) was so afraid of being harassed that he would not use the bathroom at school, instead waiting until he got home at the end of the school day," the lawsuit claims. "James and his family spoke with the county administrator, who suggested that James change schools, since the school administrators could not protect him. Rather than punish the perpetrators effectively, the school district pushed away the victim."

The boy has since returned to the school district, where he was told in a high school English class that he could not present a paper about his uncle, who is married to another man, the lawsuit claims. Additionally, when organizing a gay-straight alliance at the school, the boy was allegedly urged to call the group by another name out of concern that other students would be offended.

The third plaintiff is a lesbian girl in Salt Lake County who claims she was "selectively disciplined" for holding another girl's hand while in middle school in the Jordan School District.

"The school had rules prohibiting public displays of affection, but these rules were not enforced against heterosexual couples. In fact, it was common for heterosexual couples to hold hands and kiss at school," the lawsuit states.

The girl, identified as Jane Doe, now fears asking questions about LGBT issues for fear she will be disciplined, and on the first day of a high school health class was told that discussion of homosexuality and same-sex marriage would not be permitted in the class, Equality Utah alleges.

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

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