01/28/2011

SPLC Urges Minnesota School District to Restore LGBT Students’ Rights

In a letter sent this morning, the Southern Poverty Law Center, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Faegre & Benson, LLP are urging Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District and Champlin Park High School (CPHS) to immediately restore the rights of two lesbian students, Desiree (“Dez”) Shelton and Sarah Lindstrom.

The request, sent in response to the school’s effort to prevent the students from participating as a same-sex couple at a school assembly, asks the school to rescind these discriminatory actions by noon today. If they fail to do so, an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order will be filed to prevent the school from violating the students' rights under the United States Constitution and Minnesota law and ensure the event goes on as it has in the past.

“We are simply asking that these two students be granted the same rights as every other student, as they are due under both state and federal law,” said Sam Wolfe, lead attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It is an absolute shame that the school and school district have tarnished what should be a joyous celebration through these discriminatory actions. Hopefully, they will see the error in their ways, and correct it immediately.”

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The two students were both selected by their classmates as “royalty” for the Snow Days winter event at CPHS. In an effort to prevent them from participating as a same-sex couple, the school told Desiree and Sarah that it would cancel a part of the festivities set for next Monday afternoon.

“Preventing lesbian student couples from participating in school dances and assemblies on an equal basis with other couples violates their First Amendment right to express their affection for each other, and also violates the Minnesota Human Rights Act,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “Dez and Sarah were chosen by their peers as ‘royalty’ for the Snow Days Pep Fest and Coronation, and Champlin Park High School’s refusal to accept them as a couple shows that the school administration’s attitudes lag far behind those of the students they serve.”

Traditionally, at the school-wide Snow Days Pep Fest and Coronation, CPHS holds a processional in which the members of the court enter the assembly walking in pairs. Historically, CPHS has allowed students elected as royalty to choose their processional partner if they have a preference. When two students who are boyfriend and girlfriend are selected, it has been common practice to allow them to walk in the processional together. This year, after the students were selected, the school cancelled this part of the festivities to prevent Dez and Sarah from participating as a same-sex couple.

The school’s actions are a clear violation of these students’ rights under the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Minnesota Constitution, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The Minnesota Human Rights Act explicitly prohibits schools from discriminating against students based on their sex or sexual orientation. Such discrimination is also prohibited by the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution and the equal protection provision of the Minnesota Constitution. The school’s actions also violate the First Amendment, which protects the rights of students to bring same-sex dates to school-sponsored events.

The groups also requested that the district make clear to the school’s principal and to all district staff that it is unlawful and a violation of the First Amendment for schools to censor student expression of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.

“The decision to cancel the processional, rather than let same-sex couples participate, puts the lie to the district’s claim that it’s neutral on issues of sexual orientation,” said Mary Bauer, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s obvious that the school and school district are playing favorites.”

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