(Salt Lake City, Utah, Oct. 21, 2016)—Today, Equality Utah and three students, represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and the law firm of Ropes & Gray LLP, announced a federal lawsuit challenging state laws that ban positive speech about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Utah public schools.
The lawsuit—the first of its kind in the country to challenge such state laws—alleges that the laws violate the U.S. Constitution and federal education law by discriminating against LGBTQ people and restricting the First Amendment rights of students and teachers.
“These are some of the last remaining anti-LGBTQ laws that are currently being enforced in the country, and they’re especially odious, because they explicitly apply to school classes on every subject,” said Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams. “These laws send a message that our lives are shameful and must be hidden and censored. They create a deadly culture of silence and non-acceptance, causing harms that can never fully be undone. The time has come to end the stigma and strike down this shameful law.”
The lawsuit challenges several Utah laws and regulations that prevent positive portrayals of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in curricula, classroom discussions, and student clubs. The lawsuit claims that these discriminatory restrictions create a negative environment for LGBTQ students, perpetuate discrimination and bullying, and contribute to the high rates of anti-LGBTQ harassment in Utah schools. For instance, one plaintiff experienced severe physical and verbal harassment from other students in his kindergarten class based on his gender non-conformity. When his parents complained to school leaders about the harassment, they were told that the school district could not protect their son because of these discriminatory school laws.
The lawsuit also describes the many other ways that these laws harm students and teachers, including preventing students from receiving accurate information about sexual orientation and LGBTQ people, even when it serves important educational purposes, and prohibiting teachers and students from sharing positive views of LGBTQ people. For example, one of the student plaintiffs was given a class assignment to give an oral family history report and wanted to report on his uncle’s marriage to his same-sex spouse, but was told he could not talk about his uncle in front of his classmates.
“We are honored to represent Equality Utah and these brave students and their families in this historic case,” said Ropes & Gray partner Douglass Hallward-Dremeier, who argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down state laws barring same-sex couples from marrying. “These discriminatory laws are outdated, harmful, and blatantly unconstitutional. They serve no purpose other than to isolate and stigmatize young people who deserve to be fully supported and embraced.”
Said NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell, a Utah native: “It is long past time for these dangerous laws to be struck from the books. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that sexual orientation is ‘a normal expression of human sexuality’ and that LGBTQ people must be treated equally under the law. These laws openly discriminate against LGBTQ students and teachers. They stigmatize vulnerable young people who should be celebrated and supported, and they censor constitutionally protected free speech, including students’ right to receive accurate information about sexual orientation and LGBTQ people.”