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Constance McMillen shows her tattoo reading, To thine own self be true

Prom dispute waltzes into court

Prom season typically arrives with some minor teen drama and angst.

Will he say yes? Will she ask me?

Long or short dress? Black or white tux?

Dance or play it cool?

Prom season only occasionally brings a hasty lesson in constitutional law for the student and a lawsuit against a school board, but that’s the case for senior Constance McMillen, 18, who wanted to bring her girlfriend to the big dance at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Miss., April 2.

The local school board decided to cancel the event rather than accommodate McMillen.

McMillen’s quest to bring a same-sex date to the prom has become a national cause, with the American Civil Liberties Union representing her in a federal complaint against the school district, LGBT leaders across the country praising her for a heroic fight, numerous organizations and philanthropists offering to sponsor an alternative prom and a Facebook-based push for sympathizers to participate in the Nationwide Equality Prom and dress in evening wear April 2.

“It’s wonderful that so many people have come forward to support Constance, and we hope that support helps convince the school that it should treat all of its students fairly and equally,” said ACLU of Mississippi legal director Kristy Bennett. “Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students have a right to be open and honest about who they are at school, and schools shouldn’t treat any students worse or differently because of who they are.”

A dance invitation

On Feb. 5, a letter went out to the juniors and seniors of Itawamba Agricultural High School about the prom to be held in the school commons.

The letter stated that student organizers had decided to forego a formal banquet and instead serve “heavy hors d’ouvres” and that those who wanted to attend must buy tickets for themselves and their guests by March 5.

The letter also stated that each junior or senior could bring one guest, who must be at least a freshman and “of the opposite sex.”

The notice posed a problem for McMillen, who has said she just wants her “prom experience to be the same as all of the other students, a night to remember with the person I’m dating.”

School administrators pledged to enforce the “opposite-sex” rule. They told McMillen that if she and her same-sex date attended, they might be thrown out of the dance. They encouraged McMillen to get two “guys” to escort her and her girlfriend, warned her against slow-dancing with another girl because it might “push people’s buttons” and instructed her to wear a dress, not a tux.

With the school rejecting McMillen’s request to attend the dance with her girlfriend, the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition and the ACLU became involved. A common prom theme is “Stairway to Heaven.” The Itawamba prom was on step for federal court.

Dance off

In early March, the Itawamba County School District Board of Education gave new meaning to “dance off,” when it voted to cancel prom rather than allow McMillen to attend with her girlfriend.

After a special meeting March 10, the board issued a statement canceling the dance “due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events.”

The statement continued, “At this time, we feel that it is in the best interest of the Itawamba County School District, after taking into consideration the education, safety and well being of our students, that the Itawamba County School District not host a junior/senior prom at Itawamba Agricultural High School. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this causes anyone.”

McMillen said, “I never thought the school would try to cancel the prom and hurt everyone just to keep me and my girlfriend from going together. All I’ve ever wanted was to be able to just go to my own school’s prom with my girlfriend.”

Next step

On March 11, the ACLU sued the school district and school officials, alleging a violation of McMillen’s right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment.

“It’s shameful and cowardly of the school district to have canceled the prom and to try to blame Constance, who’s only standing up for herself,” said ACLU senior attorney Christine P. Sun. “We will fight tooth and nail for the prom to be reinstated for all students.”

Several days later, the ACLU asked a federal district court judge to issue a preliminary injunction preventing the cancellation of the dance.

A hearing on that request took place March 22.

The court did not order the district to reinstate the prom, but, in a 12-page opinion, ruled that school officials had violated McMillen’s First Amendment rights.

“It feels really good that the court realized that the school was violating my rights and discriminating against me by cancelling the prom,” said McMillen, who likely will attend an alternative community dance.

The ACLU has represented other students in similar disputes with schools, including at least two in the past year.

Last October, in Copiah County, Miss., the ACLU represented a 17-year-old girl who wanted to wear a tuxedo for her yearbook picture.

Last November, the ACLU represented a student in Franklin County, Ala., who was told she could not attend a dance with another girl.

In that case, the school district reversed its decision.

“The ACLU told us we were infringing on her rights as a student,” said Franklin County schools superintendent Gary Smith. “In view of that, we had to let her bring her.”

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