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Middle School Fight for Pro-Gay Club Upheld

OCALA, Fla. (CN) - A school board that refused to grant official club status to the gay-straight student alliance must face constitutional claims, a federal judge ruled.

Carver Middle School Gay-Straight Student Alliance and a female student identified only as H.F. sued the School Board of Lake County, Fla., for refusing club recognition that carries certain benefits.

When the alliance applied for school sponsorship, Carver rejected the application on grounds that the group was not an extension of school curriculum.

The alliance claimed in court that the school violated the Equal Access Act and its First Amendment right to free speech.

In a motion to dismiss, the board argued that it complied with First Amendment rights and that the Equal Access Act does not apply.

The alliance attached a document in its motion for a preliminary injunction suggesting that "the school board is unanimous in the view that the alliance is an appropriate school sponsored club at the high school level, but the Board is also unanimous that the immaturity of middle school children renders the alliance 'speech' not age appropriate for sponsorship at the middle school level," according to a footnote of the ruling.

Noting that the school has neither reprimanded the alliance nor H.F. for expression and free speech, the board said the alliance has also been allowed to meet on the school's property as part of the board's facilities-use policy.

U.S. District Judge W m. Terrell Hodges refused to enter an injunction but also refused to dismiss the case last week.

Though the board lets the alliance meet at school, it may still have a case over the benefits of a recognized club that it has been denied, according to the ruling.

For example, approved groups may meet on school property without compliance with the facilities-use policy; may have their finances accounted for through and by the school; may appear in the school's yearbook; may use school resources and equipment for meetings; and may have a school board employee or sponsor appointed by the principal to assist the club, the court found.

In denying the injunction, Hodges found no likelihood of success on the merits under the Equal Access Act, after the plaintiffs failed "to point to any published decision by any court applying the act to any school below the high school level."

"It must surely be beyond question at this moment in the nation's history that the subject of sexual orientation and the legal status of those in the LGBT community is at the forefront of public debate, particularly with regard to same sex marriages," he wrote. "Moreover, it is a very controversial issue. Indeed, and sadly, it is common knowledge that the debate has often turned violent. It seems entirely reasonable, therefore, that those in charge of a public middle school with students twelve to fourteen years of age would want to distance the school and its pupils from a debate best left to more mature educational levels."

The alliance likewise failed to show that it has a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of its claim under the First Amendment.

"That appears to be a doubtful proposition at best," he wrote.

The school board has 14 days to answer the complaint.

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