The Indiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has teamed up with an Indiana Gay-Straight Alliance to file a lawsuit alleging that it has been unfairly barred from operating on-campus in a similar fashion as other “non-curricular” clubs.
The suit, filed last week in U.S. District Court, claims that the Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance (PHGSA) has been prohibited from advertising itself on the campus of Pendleton Heights High School in Pendleton, IN. The ban includes posting flyers on school bulletin boards and running ads on the school’s radio station. The filing also alleges that the club has been barred from conducting fundraising activities on school grounds.
All of the privileges currently being denied to the PHGSA are readily available to other student groups and clubs at the school regardless of their respective focuses’ relation to the school’s curriculum. The PHGSA reformed this year after a period of inactivity.
The claim states that these prohibitions have “severely hindered” the PHGSA’s ability to attract students who may be in need of its “beneficial function to be a place of shelter, support and education, not just for gay, lesbian, transgender and non-binary students, but for all Pendleton Heights High School students.”
“This group aims to create an environment that provides support to students, during a time that otherwise might be increasingly difficult for LGBTQ students,” said ACLU of Indiana advocacy strategist Kit Malone in a statement. “The differential treatment aimed at Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance by administrators is unwarranted and these students must be treated in the same manner that all other student groups are treated.”
The complaint come months after students and parents questioned a policy from the South Madison Community Schools board that told teachers to remove Pride flags from their classrooms. According to the Indianapolis Star, school board president Bill Hutton equated Pride flags and other pro-LGBTQ paraphernalia to the imagery of white supremacy, saying that allowing the display of Pride flags would mean the board would have to allow other groups the same privilege.
Students present also complained about school officials’ unfair treatment of the PHGSA in its previous incarnation. The anti-Pride flag policy remains intact.
Both the school and school district are named as defendants in the lawsuit, but the filing focuses heavily on the actions of an unnamed Pendleton Heights High School principal. The suit claims that the principal recognized the PHGSA as a “non-curricular” club but not an “official” club despite it having a faculty sponsor and it meeting the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of a “non-curricular” club that is guaranteed the same privileges as “curricular” clubs.
Deeming the PHGSA as an “unofficial” club allows for the restrictions imposed by the principal, which the filing claims has caused “irreparable harm” to the PHGSA. The ACLU of Indiana believes this infringes on the Equal Access Act, which bars secondary schools that receive federal funding from preventing “non-curricular” clubs from accessing resources available to other student groups.
“Students at Pendleton Heights High School may participate in non-curricular clubs recognized by the school,” said ACLU of Indiana legal director Ken Falk. “By creating additional hurdles for Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance such as censoring the group’s promotions and prohibiting fundraising, the school is infringing on these students’ rights.”
The suit also claims that the principal’s, and therefore the school and school district’s, actions violate the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiffs are requesting that the court “allow the Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance to have the same access to school facilities and avenues of communication, including fundraising opportunities, provided to curricular and official clubs.”
South Madison Community Schools Superintendent Mark Hall declined to comment on the situation when asked by the Indianapolis Star, saying that he was yet to receive the filing.
Indiana Gay: Previously on Towleroad
Photo courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski/Creative Commons