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Ginny Maziarka

Suit filed over West Bend Gay-Straight Alliance

After years of being denied official status as a club, the West Bend High School Gay-Straight Alliance filed suit in Milwaukee federal court on May 12, charging school officials with illegal discrimination. The suit came just three days after the GSA’s latest request for recognition was denied.

According to the complaint filed, school board members violated students’ First Amendment rights and broke a federal law forbidding schools to deny equal access to organizations based on their beliefs. Ironically, that law was enacted during the Reagan administration to help religious clubs gain school recognition, said the plaintiffs’ attorney Waring R. Fincke.

The lawsuit seeks recognition of the GSA as a sanctioned student group, which would entitle it to post club notices, raise funds and be included in the school yearbook. Recognition would also enable the group to use school equipment and resources, such as the public address system.

In addition to full recognition, the group seeks an apology, damages of less than $20 and attorney fees.

The controversy over the GSA involves some of the same right-wing extremists who were behind a high-profile attempt to remove the children’s book “Heather Has Two Mommies” from the West Bend Community Library in 2009. West Bend Christian activist Ginny Maziarka, who launched the petition drive to banish the book from the library, also fired up opposition to the GSA via her blog, wisup.blogspot.com. She spoke on behalf of the opposition just prior to the May 9 vote against the GSA.

West Bend students informally launched the GSA more than a decade ago and began requesting formal club status in 2002, Fincke said. Over the years, students and student advisors have periodically renewed their request for recognition, only to be denied.

While other student groups were able to gain recognition without presenting a formal application, West Bend’s GSA has been required to go through arduous procedures that seemed created specifically to keep it out, said Brian Juchems, program director for the Madison-based Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools, which has advised the group.

The last hoop that members of the GSA were forced to jump through was to demonstrate that their activities were somehow tied to the school’s curriculum, according to Juchems.

“The school changed how groups had to form in order to get official recognition. They said (groups) have to be connected to some particular issue related to the school’s curriculum,” Juchems said. “ But even when the GSA went through that extra hurdle created to try to keep it from forming, even when they went through that extra hurdle, they were still turned down.”

In his complaint, Fincke noted that at least one club – the Key Club – has been allowed to remain a school-sanctioned club even though it lacks ties to the curriculum. Key clubs address public service and leadership.

Although there have been a number of similar cases in the United States, mostly in the rural South, Fincke believes this lawsuit is the first of its kind to be filed in Wisconsin.

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