Cases & Advocacy

Equality Utah v. Utah State Board of Education

Status: Closed

Outcome: Victory

Location: Utah

On October 21, 2016, Equality Utah and three students, represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and the law firm of Ropes & Gray LLP, filed 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‚ alleged that the laws violated the U.S. Constitution and federal education law by discriminating against LGBTQ people and restricting the First Amendment rights of students and teachers. The lawsuit also challenged a school district’s failure to protect a kindergarten student who was brutally harassed because of his gender non-conformity.

The case sought to invalidate several Utah laws and regulations that prevented positive portrayals of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in curricula, classroom discussions, and student clubs. The lawsuit alleged that these discriminatory restrictions created a negative environment for LGBTQ students, perpetuated discrimination and bullying, and contributed 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 described the many other ways that these laws harmed students and teachers, including preventing students from receiving accurate information about sexual orientation and LGBTQ people, even when that information served important educational purposes, and prohibited 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.

On March 8, 2017, in direct response to the lawsuit, the Utah Legislature passed a bill repealing the challenged laws with a bipartisan 27-1 vote in the Senate and a 68- 1 vote in the House. Governor Gary Herbert signed the repeal into law. In October 2017, the parties settled the lawsuit.