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Okeechobee asks federal courts to rule on gay-straight alliance

By Colleen Wixon, TCPalm.com

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee School District has asked federal courts for a summary judgment on whether a Gay-Straight Alliance should be allowed to meet on the Okeechobee High School campus.

In papers filed Tuesday with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District, lawyers for the school district also are asking for a hearing on the motion.

"Summary judgment is proper in this case because there is no genuine issue of material fact," the motion says.

The motion contends the district legitimately had the authority under the Federal Equal Access Act and current case law to determine the formation of the student group would not protect the well-being of students at Okeechobee High.

But American Civil Liberties Union attorney Robert Rosenwald Jr. said Wednesday the board violated the Equal Access Act by banning the alliance but allowing other clubs to meet on the school campus.

A June 9 trial date has been scheduled on the matter.

"The school just needs to obey the law," Rosenwald said.

But the district contends in the motion the club was denied in order to protect students from inappropriate sexually explicit discussions among students. Any sex-based student club would be denied, the motion says.

Last October, the Okeechobee School Board unanimously approved a change to its rules prohibiting sexually oriented clubs and all groups that are based on sexual orientation or grouping.

In November 2006, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of former student Yasmin Gonzalez, who graduated last year. The courts issued a preliminary injunction in April allowing the club to meet on campus until a ruling. Rosenwald said the club has met at the school without incident.

The school district is missing the club's point, he said.

"There is a problem with bullying and harassment of gay and lesbian students at Okeechobee High School," he said. "The school should be a part of the solution, not the problem."

The ACLU will file a response to the district's motion, Rosenwald said.

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