NCLR and SPLC Demand that Anoka-Hennepin School District Repeal Discriminatory Gag Policy and Address Anti-Gay Harassment

May 24, 2011

(San Francisco, CA, May 24, 2011)—Today, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sent a letter to Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District demanding that District officials immediately repeal the gag policy that prevents teachers from discussing issues related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, and take immediate action to address the bullying and harassment that LGBT students in the District regularly face.

According to the letter, “the gag policy serves no legitimate education-related purpose. Rather, as made abundantly clear in the District’s own guidance about the policy, the gag policy singles out a vulnerable and disfavored minority—LGBT students—and prevents teachers and other district employees from supporting, or even protecting, those students within the classroom. The mandatory silence imposed by the policy leaves teachers without tools to handle LGBT bullying, and creates an atmosphere in which LGBT students are isolated and feel unprotected.”

The letter also states that the gag policy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. “This fundamental constitutional guarantee prohibits school district officials from singling out any group of students for disfavored treatment based solely on their membership in an unpopular minority,” the letter states. “The gag policy singles out LGBT students by denying them and them alone any affirmation of their identity and by categorically precluding any meaningful classroom discussion about history, literature, current events, or any other relevant lessons involving LGBT people. The policy imposes a stigma on LGBT students as pariahs, not fit to be mentioned within the school community, a message that comes across loud and clear both to LGBT students and their peers, and which has grave repercussions for the psychological and emotional development of LGBT students.”

The letter was prompted after a number of present and past District students requested that SPLC and NCLR investigate the pervasive harassment they have experienced based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender expression at District schools. The ongoing investigation has found that the gag policy contributes significantly to the lack of safety of LGBT students and students perceived as LGBT within the District.

The investigation revealed that numerous students throughout the District have faced severe bullying based on their sexual orientation or gender expression, which school officials either ignored or responded to ineffectively.  Just a few examples include:

•    One student faced daily verbal and physical harassment at school because of the perception that she is a lesbian. She reported the harassment to teachers and administrators numerous times, including the vice principal and the principal, but the only response was an occasional verbal reprimand with no consequences for the harassers. The District took no action, and she eventually dropped out of school and attempted suicide after the constant harassment became too much to bear.

•    Another student reported chronic anti-LGBT harassment to authorities for two years, only to be advised by administrators to leave the school because they could not protect him.

•    One teenager endured years of verbal and physical harassment based on his sexual orientation and perceived gender nonconformity before dropping out of school. In one incident, he was violently assaulted and called “faggot” as a teacher and students stood by.

“In every one of these incidents, and many others, District authorities failed to properly respond to repeated reports of verbal and physical harassment, in violation of their legal obligations,” the letter states. “These incidents and others like them appear to be part of a pervasive pattern of hostility against LGBT students within District schools, which has had dire consequences. Many LGBT students have been pushed out of the District altogether; many have experienced emotional and psychological scars as a result of constant bullying.” Most tragically, the letter reports that since November 2009, at least four LGBT students in the District have died by suicide.

“The District is in flagrant violation of its legal and constitutional responsibilities to its students,” said NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter. “The unchecked hostility that LGBT students face every day in Anoka-Hennepin’s schools has gone on long enough. The discriminatory gag policy must be repealed, and the District must take serious steps to address and prevent anti-LGBT bullying before one more student is pushed out of school or pushed to the brink of despair.”

“The gag policy is anything but neutral,” said Sam Wolfe, lead attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.  “It is rooted in homophobia and sustains a hostile environment harmful to all students.  The District must repeal this dangerous policy.”

The letter calls for the prompt repeal of the gag policy and immediate action to address and prevent the bullying of LGBT students and those perceived as LGBT.  The letter warns the Anoka-Hennepin School District that without meaningful action to remedy the current hostile environment, the organizations intend to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of their clients against the District.

In January 2011, NCLR and SPLC, along with the Minneapolis law firm of Faegre & Benson LLP, brought a lawsuit in federal court for an emergency injunction against the Anoka-Hennepin School District when the District threatened to cancel the traditional royalty court procession for the Snow Days winter formal dance at Champlin Park High School in order to prevent two lesbian students, Dez Shelton and Sarah Lindstrom, from walking together. That lawsuit was successfully resolved in mediation and the District agreed to allow the girls to walk together.

Read the letter.

Media Contact:

NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office: 415.392.6257 x324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org


LGBT Equal Rights Groups Urge Court to Reject Attack on Prop 8 Trial Judge

May 13, 2011

(San Francisco, CA, May 13, 2011)—A coalition of groups that advocate for the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people today filed a brief urging the U.S. District Court not to vacate last year’s historic ruling invalidating Proposition 8.  Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the ACLU of Northern California and Equality California filed the friend-of-the-court brief in Perry v. Brown in response to a motion filed last month by supporters of Proposition 8 that asked the court to undo last year’s decision in that case.  The Prop 8 supporters  contend that now-retired Chief Judge Vaughn Walker should have declined to hear the case because he was in a long-term relationship with another man, and that the judge’s 135-page decision, which followed a three-week trial, should be invalidated for that reason.

The brief filed by the groups argues that the Prop 8 supporters’ motion closely parallels long-discredited historical attempts to disqualify judges based on their race, sex or religion.  The groups contend that the Prop 8 supporters’ argument boils down to the notion that essentially no gay, lesbian or bisexual judge could impartially preside over a case involving the rights of same-sex couples – an offensive suggestion that has been consistently rejected by the courts in similar cases involving race and sex discrimination.

“The suggestion that a judge’s sexual orientation prevents him from doing his job is deeply offensive,” said National Center for Lesbian Rights Legal Director Shannon Minter. “The same type of identity-based arguments were used to attack judges based on their race, gender, and religion in the past. Those arguments have been soundly rejected as offensive and insupportable in past cases, and they should be rejected here as well. Generalizations based on personal characteristics have no place in our system of justice.”

Said Jon Davidson, Legal Director of Lambda Legal: “This stinks of desperation on the part of Prop 8 supporters. Everyone has constitutional rights, so cases that raise constitutional issues routinely affect the public at large, including judges.  But that’s no basis for recusal, here or in any case.  A female judge has no duty to recuse herself from hearing a case involving women’s right to vote, even if she wanted to vote.  It would be absurd if, in order to rule on discrimination claims, judges would need to practice discrimination themselves.  And the notion that being in a same-sex relationship renders a judge unable to interpret the law and uphold the sworn duty to rule impartially is insulting to both judges and America’s system of justice.”

“Prop 8 supporters are resorting to desperate tactics because they presented no concrete evidence that denying same-sex couples the fundamental freedom to marry serves any legitimate purpose other than to prevent an entire group of people from enjoying equality and security,” said Jim Carroll, Equality California Interim Executive Director. “We are confident that backers of Prop 8 will fail at their laughable efforts to discredit Judge Walker and to divert attention away from their flimsy case built on fear, ignorance and prejudice.”

“The Prop 8 supporters say that their motion is not based on Judge Walker’s sexual orientation, but instead on the fact that he’s been in a long-term relationship with another man. This is a distinction without a difference,” explained Elizabeth Gill, Staff Attorney, LGBT & AIDS Project, ACLU of Northern California, “If sexual orientation isn’t a basis for recusal, then neither is a relationship with a person of the same sex.”

Chief Judge James Ware will hear the motion on June 13th, along with Proponents’ motion requesting the return of certain trial recordings.

Media Contact:

NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office: 415.392.6257 x324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org


NCLR Condemns Uganda’s Shocking Persecution of the LGBT Community

May 10, 2011

(San Francisco, CA, May 10, 2011)—Today, the Ugandan parliament held hearings on the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill,” which would make being lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender a crime that is punishable by death, and would impose jail time on anyone who does not immediately report LGBT people to the police as “offenders.”

The Civil Society Coalition, a group of 28 organizations in the capital of Uganda, testified before parliament that the bill “is being used to blind the world to everything else that is going on in Uganda,” including a crackdown on the freedom of the press, rampant inflation, rising food and fuel prices, and a month of intense protests against government corruption.

Ugandan activists say that the government is attempting to reinvigorate this bill—known as the “Kill the Gays” bill—to draw attention away from its violent response to the demonstrations, which has consisted of arresting protest leaders, shooting unarmed civilians, and repeated teargassing of demonstrators. They are calling on the government to focus on pervasive issues of hunger, poverty, and democratic governance.

The Civil Society Coalition noted that the bill prohibits outreach, education, support and targeted services for LGBT people, including HIV treatment and prevention. The current Ugandan parliament will vote on the bill by the end of this week. Ugandan activists have asked that concerned allies circulate this information to media outlets, international organizations and their personal networks, and continue to watch http://www.GlobalEquality.Wordpress.com for further details.

A Statement by NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell:

“This bill is a shocking abuse of government power to persecute innocent people. The government is scapegoating the LGBT community in a blatant attempt to distract attention from its repression of all Ugandans. We support the efforts of the LGBT community in Uganda to stand up to this horrific assault, and we call on governments, religious and political leaders around the world to condemn this repugnant bill.”

Media Contact:

NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office: 415.392.6257 x324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org


NCLR, EQCA, and Lambda Legal File Amicus Brief in California Supreme Court in Proposition 8 Challenge

May 4, 2011

(San Francisco, CA, May 4, 2011)—Yesterday, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Equality California, and Lambda Legal filed a friend-of-the court brief with the California Supreme Court arguing that the proponents of Proposition 8 have no power to override the decision of elected state officials about whether to appeal a federal court decision that Prop 8 is unconstitutional. The brief explains that initiative proponents are unelected and have no right to act as representatives of the state. It also explains that regardless of how the California Supreme Court rules, the supporters of Proposition 8 have no “standing” to pursue an appeal in federal court because they are not harmed by allowing same-sex couples to marry and because their interests were limited to having the measure put to a vote.

“California law does not permit the unelected proponents of a constitutional initiative to step into the state’s shoes when elected officials appropriately decide not to appeal a decision striking down an unconstitutional measure,” said Equality California Interim Executive Director Jim Carroll. “We are hopeful that the appeal will soon be dismissed, restoring marriage equality as soon as possible, and that same-sex couples and their families will once again be able to enjoy equality and dignity under the law.”

NCLR legal director Shannon Minter explained, “Under the California Constitution, the state Attorney General must decide whether to appeal a federal court holding that a state law is unconstitutional, based on her conclusions about whether an appeal would be in the state’s interest. Nothing in California law gives unelected initiative sponsors the power to make that decision on behalf of the entire state.”

“There is nothing in California’s Constitution or statutes that provides proponents of initiatives any rights to defend those measures if they pass and are later challenged in court,” said Jon Davidson, Legal Director of Lambda Legal. “At best, initiative proponents are like legislators who sponsor a bill, whom courts have repeatedly said are not entitled to appear in cases to defend the constitutionality of laws they drafted. To allow the proponents of Proposition 8 to represent the state would usurp the role of the attorney general, who is sworn to uphold the rights of all Californians, not just the 20 percent of state residents who voted in favor the initiative.”

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Prop 8 was unconstitutional in August 2010, and the sponsors of Prop 8 sought to appeal that judgment to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On January 4, 2011, the Ninth Circuit asked the California Supreme Court for guidance on whether the sponsors of Prop 8 have legal standing to pursue the appeal under California law. The California Supreme Court said that it would consider the question on an expedited basis with oral arguments to be held as early as September.

Equality California is represented by Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, PC, and the Law Offices of David C. Codell.

Media Contact:

NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office: 415.392.6257 x324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org


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