Missteps in the march to tolerance

The Observer editorial board

As we cheer the LGBT community’s steady walk toward acceptance – Salt Lake City elected Utah’s first openly gay mayor this week – we shouldn’t forget that the march doesn’t come without stumbles.

Another reminder arrived this month from nearby Rutherford County, where the board of directors at a public charter school suspended all student-led clubs because of parent complaints about one – a group promoting understanding and support of LGBT students.

Officials at Lake Lure Classical Academy emphasized that the action is temporary while the school explores its legal options. But suspending the clubs, instead of letting students continue to meet, suggests that the legal option the board would prefer is keeping the LGBT group from meeting again.

That won’t work, of course. As the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina helpfully told the school this week, the law requires that all student clubs must be treated equally. Specifically, the Equal Access Act of 1984 prohibits public secondary schools from denying “equal access or a fair opportunity” to conduct meetings or hold forums “based on the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of speech at such meetings.”

That means if a school allows any student-led clubs to meet, it must allow an LGBT club to meet. Courts have repeatedly affirmed this.

In a statement Wednesday, the school’s board said it would discuss the issue at its next scheduled meeting, on Dec. 10. “It is our goal that club activities will be reinstated, clear guidelines and policies written, and a path defined for the creation and operation of existing and future clubs/groups,” the statement said.

The law has made this an easy choice for LLCA. We hope the school’s board doesn’t make it difficult by crafting structural requirements for all clubs that make it more difficult for LGBT clubs to exist, such as requiring parental consent to join a club. That hasn’t stopped LGBT clubs in other schools, but it has prevented individual students from joining a club that could provide them a safe, supportive haven.

Even this suspension, temporary as it might be, sends the wrong message. It shows that the board of this publicly funded school is more concerned about accommodating intolerance – including the pastor who called the students’ LGBT club an “act of Satan” – than it is in maintaining a welcoming environment for its students.

It’s also a reminder that despite the victories we regularly celebrate these days, the LGBT community still faces an undercurrent of intolerance. It’s quieter now, but it’s real, and it’s why groups like the one at Lake Lure Classical Academy are so important.

The LLCA board should immediately lift the suspension of its student-run clubs. While they’re at it, board members should attend a meeting or two of the LGBT club, so they can better grasp what understanding really means.