On Friday, February 4, a federal court ordered the Orange Unified School District to admit as a recognized student group the Gay-Straight Alliance Club of El Modena High School, a high school student group that, by its own admission, was organized to promote acceptance of and gain support for homosexuality.
Student organizers of the club had earlier refused a proposed compromise "Tolerance Club," contending in sworn testimony that the use of the word "gay" in the title of the club was important to announce that being gay or homosexual is not bad.
The federal court held that the Equal Access Act, a statute enacted by Congress in 1984 so that religious student groups could meet on school grounds, also applied to any student group, unless the School Board could prove that the club would be a major disruption to the education of students. The school board had contended that because the Gay-Straight Alliance dealt with subjects already addressed in the schools human sexuality curriculum, it was not covered by the Equal Access Act.
The court rejected that argument, noting that although homosexuality was addressed in the teacher's edition of a human sexuality textbook, it was not actually taught to students. By the court's reasoning, other topics covered in the teachers edition of the textbook, including sadism, sadomasochism, fetishism, transvestitism, obscene phone calls, exhibitionism and pedophilia (all mentioned in the court's opinion), could also form the basis for a recognized student group if the school district chose not to include explicit discussion of those subjects in the sex education curriculum.
Few options are open to the school board, none of which are attractive. First, the school board could appeal the court's decision, challenging one or more of the possibly erroneous factual findings or legal conclusions made by the court. But appeals are time-consuming and costly. In the meantime, the trial judge has denied the school board's request for a stay pending the appeal, which means that the student group will be able to meet on campus, publicize itself at the school's "Club Rush," post flyers, make announcements over the school's public address system, and have a group picture in the yearbook.
Second, the school board could relinquish all its federal funding, because the requirements of the Equal Access Act only apply to schools that accept federal funds — the result of an erroneous Supreme Court decision 65 years ago, which let Congress interfere in areas, such as public schools, over which Congress had no constitutional authority, simply by imposing conditions on federal funds.
Third, the school board could simply ban all other non-curricular student organizations, because the requirements of the Equal Access Act would then no longer apply. That would mean the end of the Chess Club, the Christian Club, the Ski Club, the Black Student Union, the Earth Club, the Asian Club, and the Red Cross/Key Club to name just a few.
Finally, the school board could capitulate and recognize as an official student organization a club whose stated purpose runs contrary to what the board has determined to be part of the school's educational mission. Such a position would make a mockery of the general rule, repeatedly recognized by the Supreme Court and cited by the trial court in this case, that the education of the nation's youth is primarily the responsibility of parents, teachers, and state and local officials, and not of federal judges.
As I said, none of these alternatives are attractive, because they all, in one way or another, inhibit what the duly elected board believes to be the educational mission of its schools. Our public schools are not supposed to be forums for alternative lifestyles, nor incubators of moral relativism. Since the earliest days of our nation, schools have received public support because America's Founders recognized that wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, to use the words of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 and still in effect, were necessary for the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people.
Perhaps the best statement of this principle is found in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." In short, the Founders well understood that a republican form of government could not succeed without a virtuous citizenry. The principal role of public schools is to help develop such citizens.
The court's order moves us one big step away from that mission, undermining the well-being not just of students and parents at El Modena High School, but of all of us. Perhaps it is high time for the Orange Unified School Board and every school board to reject federal funds and the strings that come along with them. By re-assuming complete financial responsibility for the education of our children, we will also regain some control over the moral content of that education.