Making a Federal Case Out Of It
Desiree "Dez" and Sarah are high school seniors at Champlin Park High School (CPHS), which is in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District. They’re also a couple, and both are out at school as lesbians, which takes a lot of courage given the conservative climate in their school district (this is Michele Bachmann’s district). There have been reports of serious anti-gay bullying, and a number of LGBT students in the area have committed suicide in the past year and a half.
Every year CPHS holds a "Snow Days Week" celebration, ending with a formal dance. The student body elects an equal number of boys and girls to the "Snow Days Week Royalty Court" (don’t you love high school?) who are presented to the school in pairs at the Pep Fest and Coronation assembly. This year Dez and Sarah decided to run for the Royalty Court, in part because they wanted to create more visibility for LGBT students at CPHS, and they were thrilled when their classmates selected them. As other couples on the Court have done in every year past, Dez and Sarah planned to walk together, as a couple, in the procession. Two of their straight guy friends who were also on the Royalty Court even offered to walk together so that no one would have to walk alone.
Last week, school officials told Dez and Sarah that they would not be allowed to walk together, because seeing a visible same-sex couple might make some students and parents "uncomfortable." When the girls pushed back and argued that that was discrimination, the school first decided to cancel the entire procession, and then decided to make all of the students walk alone.
Dez and Sarah were not happy with this so-called solution. Canceling an important part of the ceremony that all the students were looking forward to, just to keep a same-sex couple from participating, was discrimination, plain and simple. This sort of knee-jerk overreaction was reminiscent of Constance McMillen’s case that the ACLU litigated last year, in which the school canceled the prom rather than allow a same-sex couple to attend.
The girls decided that they would be willing to take this fight all the way to court, if necessary—but time was of the essence, because the Pep Fest was scheduled for today, Monday, January 31. Last Thursday afternoon, some friends put them in touch with NCLR and our colleagues at the Southern Poverty Law Center to talk through their options. Friday morning, our groups, along with the law firm of Faegre & Benson, sent a letter to the school district on the girls’ behalf, forcefully setting out the legal case that what the district was doing was clearly wrong and illegal under both the First Amendment and the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which prohibits schools from discriminating based on sexual orientation.
The school refused to back down, so Friday afternoon we filed a lawsuit in federal court asking for an emergency injunction ordering the school to allow the girls to participate as a couple in the ceremony on Monday afternoon. The judge asked both sides to come to a mediation session on Saturday morning to try to resolve the case.
I am delighted to report that the mediation was a success! The district relented and agreed to allow the procession to proceed as originally planned. Dez and Sarah—and any other same-sex couple—would walk together. They also agreed that this had provided an "opportunity for ongoing conversation about school events and activities and for consideration of other ideas that will make our school communities inclusive" and respectful of everybody, including LGBT students. This afternoon, Dez and Sarah walked in the procession as a couple, holding hands, in matching tuxes and pink ties, to the boisterous cheers of their classmates.
Every once in a while NCLR gets involved in a case that leaves us asking, "What were they thinking?!" This case was such a moment. We applaud the school officials for resolving this in a way that honors both the tradition of Snow Days Week and the rights of Dez and Sarah to participate just like every other member of the Royalty Court. In one sense this case is about the girls’ rights to free expression and equal protection of the laws. But even more importantly, it is about dignity, the right to be seen and to be a valued member of one’s community. Congratulations, Dez and Sarah. There are many people—young, old, LGBT and not—who walk a little taller today because of your courage.
P.S. If you find yourself standing a little taller after hearing about Dez and Sarah’s courage and integrity, I hope you’ll take a moment to make a gift in their honor to NCLR today. While I’d like to think this is the last time we’ll have to step in and help out and proud LGBT students who want to participate just like everyone else, I also know that we have so much work yet to do. Clearly, your gift is going to a good cause.