News

Gays not protected in school club ruling

By JODY ALLARD

Staff writer

Recent court decisions aimed at protecting high school studentsŽ’ freedom to choose their own school-sponsored clubs have jeopardized the rights of some local students and opened a can of worms for district officials.

When Federal Way High School senior Corrigan Gommenginger tried to start a Gay/Straight Alliance on campus, he says he met with discrimination from an unlikely group ŽÑ his peers.

The schoolŽ’s Associated Student Body officers voted 36-34 against allowing GommengingerŽ’s club to become an official ASB-sponsored club. In accordance with school policy, a second vote was held by the schoolŽ’s entire 1,600 student body. The results of the second vote will be made public during next monthŽ’s ASB meeting.

The clubŽ’s encouragement of tolerance toward gays and lesbians made some students uncomfortable and others Ž“sick,Ž” Federal Way High students said. Unwilling to go on record, students at Federal Way High School spoke freely Monday about their distaste for the clubŽ’s subject matter.

Alleging discrimination by his peers, Gommenginger approached the school district for intervention.

From the district, Gommenginger has received little assistance.

Ž“They are still standing by their Ž“no.Ž’ They said ASB has full power over the clubs and activities,Ž” said Gommenginger.

There are no ASB-sponsored clubs pertaining to gay/lesbian issues in the Federal Way school district, although some student groups meet on school grounds.

The problem, Federal Way Public Schools officials say, is not with the Gay/Straight Alliance itself. Calling the organization Ž“a positive thingŽ” for the school and the district, deputy superintendent Mark Davidson said that under current guidelines and the law, the alliance Ž“has a right to be a club. That club promotes tolerance so that seems like something, in my opinion, that the school is all about.Ž”

But, pointing to a recent federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision preserving the right of students to choose their own clubs, district officials say they arenŽ’t ready to intervene in a legally-mandated ASB decision.

Ž“The concept that the justices had described is that districts need to relax and allow kids to make that decision,Ž” said Davidson.

Although the Gay/Straight AllianceŽ’s right to meet on school grounds is ensured under the Equal Access Act, the club can not use school supplies or hold fund-raising events without ASB sponsorship.

The district has not been wholly unsympathetic to GommengingerŽ’s cause. The alliance has hosted talks during World Aids Day and is allowed to post flyers on bulletin boards to advertise upcoming meetings.

Still, without full ASB sponsorship, Corrigan said the group is unable to use student media for advertisements.

Ž“We canŽ’t publicize, we canŽ’t even say the word Ž“club.Ž’ They call us an alliance,Ž” said Gommenginger. Ž“In order to become popular, you have to advertise.Ž”

Principal Shay Short said the alliance has the same rights as other clubs to use the student newspaper and PA system for advertisements.

Until the results of the campuswide vote are released next month, Davidson said the district will take a Ž“wait and seeŽ” approach.

Ž“ItŽ’s really important for people to understand how important following the law is,Ž” said Davidson. Ž“You canŽ’t have it both ways. You canŽ’t say kids ought to be making the decisions and then, when you donŽ’t like the decisions, turn around and say Ž“You canŽ’t make the decisions.Ž’ It subverts what I believe ASBs ought to be about.Ž”

The Washington branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has a different perspective. Emphasizing that the ACLU would be interested in hearing more about GommengingerŽ’s case, Doug Honig, public education director, said that Ž“school Gay/Straight Alliances have to be treated the same as other clubs and canŽ’t be rejected because the school or its students donŽ’t like the ideaŽ” of such an organization.

Honig acknowledged that the ACLU would need more information before making any further statements regarding the club.

Ž“One would have to look at the policy and see if the policy was being followed, and then examine that policy,Ž” said Honig.

GommengingerŽ’s club is the first of many challenges the district is likely to see over the coming years.

Seeking to uphold a 2001 Supreme Court decision, administrators did not intervene when the Thomas Jefferson High School ASB allowed a small group of Christian students to form a religious club on campus.

But, with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals placing the authority for determining which clubs can be sponsored by the ASB squarely in the hands of the students, ensuring that religious clubs are not discriminated against could become a balancing act for administrators.

In the case of MORE at Jefferson, the 30-member Christian club received little opposition from fellow students.

If a Muslim, Wiccan or non-Christian religious club attempted to form on a local campus, district officials fear the group could be voted down by the schoolŽ’s ASB ŽÑ placing protection for religious clubs at odds with studentsŽ’ right to choose.

With no easy answers, the policy changes have left district administrators and their attorneys scrambling to understand the new rules for student clubs.

For Gommenginger, who praises court decisions allowing religious clubs on campus, there is less legal support for other students hoping to Ž“form a place where they can belong.Ž”

The message to students, Gommenginger said, is clear: God is protected from student discrimination, but not gays.

Staff writer Jody Allard can be reached at 925-5565 and jallard@fedwaymirror.com

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