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Utah Requires Parental Consent for Student Clubs

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In March, Utah became the first state to pass a bill requiring parental consent for students to join extracurricular school clubs. The bill also puts in place several other requirements. A club must have a faculty sponsor, must state its purpose and have a name that goes along with that purpose. School administrators can deny a club's application if they believe it necessary to "protect the physical, emotional and moral well-being of students."

A similar measure failed earlier this year in Virginia. In both states the issue was hotly debated. The Utah bill went through seven versions before it finally gained the approval of both houses and Gov. Jon Huntsman.

"We now have a statement — not just in policy but in statute — saying parents' rights are paramount," said Rep. Aaron Tilton, who sponsored the bill.

The Board of Education and some legislators opposed the bill because school districts already had their own policies in place for student clubs. A spokesman for the governor responded that rather than micromanaging districts, the bill "simply codifies items already in state board rules."

The clause of the bill that has drawn the most attention and debate, however, is the one that restricts clubs from "advocating or engaging in sexual activity outside of legally recognized marriage or forbidden by state law." This clause may affect the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).

The ACLU sent a letter to Gov. Huntsman saying that schools would probably violate the Federal Equal Access Act as a result of the new law. Under the federal act, schools may not discriminate against student clubs because of "political, philosophical or other content of the speech" at club meetings.

Gayle Ruzicka, Utah Eagle Forum president, pointed out to the Associated Press that the bill "could only ban gay clubs if they were doing something illegal like talking about sexually explicit things. Clearly, the guidelines will help districts know exactly what they can do. Everyone will know what the rules are."

How central to the mission of GSA is "talking about sexually explicit things"? It may depend on the particular chapter of GSA. There certainly have been several instances of wildly inappropriate actions on the part of GSA and the Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which operates GSA and has helped to establish 3,000 GSA chapters nationwide.

In Massachusetts in 2005, GLSEN distributed to hundreds of middle and high school students a booklet called The Little Black Book: Queer in the 21st Century. The booklet contained sexually explicit photographs, a listing of local bars and clubs where teenagers could find sexual partners, and statements such as "You have the right to enjoy sex without shame or stigma! You have the right to safer sex materials that speak to your desires!"

In 2003, GLSEN delivered a yellow school bus full of middle and high school GSA members to the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade. The parade was sexually explicit: fully nude people and simulated sex acts were visible all along the parade route. In 2000, GLSEN co-sponsored a conference for children and teachers at Tufts University. Lecturers described specific homosexual acts in graphic detail before an audience including teenagers as young as 14.

The Utah legislation would curtail such GSA activities as those listed above. Whether school districts will apply it to other GSA activities remains to be seen.

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