Relying upon federal legislation intended to allow Bible clubs equal access in high schools, a student homosexual group is demanding not only meeting space but official approval at a Salt Lake City high school.

The Gay/Straight Alliance of East High School first formed in 1995. Fearing that federal law would preclude a ban targeting only homosexual groups, the Salt Lake City School Board decided to ban all non-curricular student organizations. Forty-six student groups, including the Frisbee Club, the Young Republicans, and Students Against Drunk Driving, were shut down in order to block the Gay/Straight Alliance.

Utah’s state legislature responded to the Gay/Straight Alliance in 1996 with a law prohibiting public-school student groups that promote sexuality, bigotry, violence, or illegality. But another Utah law permits private groups to rent space in public buildings. With legal and financial assistance from a New York-based homosexual rights group, the Gay/Straight Alliance is now renting space at East High School. Most other banned student organizations, lacking similar outside help, remain shut down.

Meanwhile, with full backing from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, homosexual high-school students, with their out-of-the-closet faculty advisor, are waging a legal battle against the Salt Lake City School Board to procure free meeting space. Their campaign has even gained funding from the nation’s largest organization for church women.

It is a bizarre situation involving sexuality, religion, free speech, parental rights, public education, and relationships among local, state, and federal governments. This story touches nearly every fault line in our nation’s culture, making it the perfect emblem of America at the turn of the millennium. With even Mormon-dominated Utah vulnerable to the demands of sexual interest groups, the culture wars have clearly become a national phenomenon.

According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in New York, there are at least 400 Gay/Straight Alliances meeting in high schools across the country. And their numbers are growing. Because local authorities in Salt Lake City have so far stood firm against GLSEN’s demands, this case appears to have generated more publicity than most.

The Gay/Straight Alliance at East High School coalesced five years ago when some students recognized a teacher at the Utah Gay and Lesbian Community Center. Science teacher Camille Lee was there to hear a speech by gay rights activist Candace Gingrich, sister to the former U.S. speaker of the house. Lee agreed to help six students start a club to discuss homosexual concerns.

Needing an ally, she asked the faculty advisor for the school’s Socialist Club to join her in meeting with the principal. Lee also decided to announce her own lesbianism and become a member of GLSEN. The principal, Kay Petersen, was supportive of the proposed club. “Closets aren’t healthy places,” explained Petersen, who later received an award from GLSEN.

A worried Salt Lake City School Board disagreed. In early 1996, the board banned all non-curricular clubs from the city’s schools. Its members feared a more specific ban would violate the federal Equal Access Act of 1983, which prohibits discrimination against a school group because of the unpopularity of its ideas. Conservative congressmen had created tins legislation, with President Reagan’s approval, to protect religious groups from discrimination.

Even without the school board’s new policy, Utah’s subsequently ratified prohibition against student groups that promote sexuality would still have shut out the Gay/Straight Alliance. But the state’s Civic Center Act of 1989 allows private groups to meet in public buildings. Student groups with adult sponsors and liability insurance are entitled to rent space, even if they lack official endorsement from the school’s administration. The Gay/Straight Alliance gained the needed adult supervision and liability money from GLSEN. About 25 students now attend the weekly meetings.

Nearly all of the 45 other non-curriculum related groups—including the Computer Club, the Aztec Club for Latinos, the Black Club, the Ski Club, and the Polynesian Club—failed to find the sponsorship and funding required to continue and were disbanded. The Key Club, with sponsorship from the Kiwanis, was able to persevere. (Athletic teams were deemed curriculum-related and continue to meet, as do the National Honor Society and Future Business Leaders of America.)

Of course, members of the Gay/ Straight Alliance and their sponsors, despite their rented meeting space, are still upset because they lack official sanction. In 1998, they filed a civil-rights suit against the Salt Lake City School Board. “If we were school-sponsored, we could make announcements and get the word out to people in need of the support,” explained one member of the Alliance to a reporter. Other students and faculty have complained that the absence of student organizations has undermined school spirit. Some even fret that colleges will snub them because they lack extracurricular activities on their school record.

In April of last year, the principal at East High School once again courted controversy by allowing the Gay/Straight Alliance to make a presentation about gay pride at a school assembly on multiculturalism, which all students were required to attend. Parents responded with outrage, and the principal admitted error. Future assemblies will only allow cultural groups identified with a specific ethnicity or geographic location.

Meanwhile, an award-winning—and sympathetic—documentary about the Gay/Straight Alliance’s struggle against the Salt Lake City School Board was produced. Out of the Past was acclaimed at the Sundance Film Festival, aired at the White House’s first celebration of Lesbian and Gay Pride month, and broadcast on PBS.

The Gay/Straight Alliance picked up crucial religious support when United Methodist Women, the largest religious women’s organization in the country (with nearly one million members), donated $11,000 for a regional “Free School Clubs” meeting to generate support for overthrowing the Salt Lake City school policy. “We’re not funding anything that is promoting sexual orientation,” said Lois Dauway. Denying that the grant violates church policies that disapprove of homosexuality, she said her group was merely upholding free speech.

Some Methodists will no doubt wince at their denomination’s alliance with the ACLU and the GLSEN, neither of which has been particularly friendly toward church groups. And the leaders of United Methodist Women probably have not contemplated their double standard: They have been silent when prayer or Bible groups have faced discrimination in public schools.

The hypocrisy of its allies aside, GLSFN is optimistic about the continued expansion of its network of students and teachers. GLSEN’s creation in Boston in 1990 led Massachusetts to become the first state to recognize sexual minorities in public schools. Now there arc over 140 homosexual student groups in Massachusetts schools.

The Gay/Straight Alliance of Fast High School is the only public school group of its kind in Utah so far, but GLSEN hopes a successful conclusion to its lihgation later this year will allow other gay/straight groups to blossom throughout conservative Utah.