Leesburg – Both sides are awaiting a judge’s response to the second lawsuit fighting for a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at Carver Middle School.
There was a hearing Feb. 10 before Judge William Terrell Hodges at the United States District Court Middle District of Florida, Ocala Division. The plaintiff in the case is The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which filed a lawsuit on behalf of Hannah Faughnan, 12, a seventh-grader who is attempting to form a GSA at her school. Faughnan is representing a group of students who want to create the GSA. The lawsuit was filed in Dec. 2013.
Judge Hodges is currently considering two motions—a motion to dismiss and a motion for a preliminary injunction, which would allow the GSA to meet while the lawsuit is pending.
“The [Lake County] School Board is trying to end the lawsuit now,” said Daniel Tilley, staff attorney for LGBT rights with the ACLU of Florida. “We would like the lawsuit to continue and we believe it will.”
The hearing lasted about an hour, with the ACLU making the first statement, attorneys for the Lake County School District spoke second, then the Tilley made the rebuttal.
“The judge was very focused on procedural issues and whether middle school clubs are covered under the Federal Equal Access Act particularly,” Tilley said. “We demonstrated at the hearing that middle school clubs are covered and we hope the judge sees through the school board’s arguments against that.”
Tilley added that there’s no deadline for Judge Hodges’ response.
“It’s impossible to say when the judge will rule, but I hope the judge will rule sooner rather than later,” Tilley said. “Before moving forward, we need to know where the judge stands on some of the legal issues.”
The Lake County school district would not comment on the case.
“As Lake County Schools is in current litigation, it would not be prudent for the school district to make a comment regarding this pending lawsuit,” said Christopher Patton, Communications Officer for Lake County Schools.
The last time the ACLU sued Lake County Schools, they were representing openly bisexual Bayli Silberstein, who at the time was a 14-year-old 8th grader at Carver Middle School. After months of legal wrangling and school board meeting debates, a judge granted Silberstein permission to form the club for the remainder of her 8th grade year, which ended in the summer of 2013.
That settlement has expired, Bayli has moved onto high school and now, the GSA no longer meets at Carver Middle School. Before the club became inactive, Faughan and her friends tried to keep it going but ran into administrative roadblocks similar to the ones Silberstein faced.
The difference is that with the first lawsuit, the school district settled quickly and out of court.
“We began settlement discussion the day [the lawsuit] was filed,” Tilley said. “We did not even get a hearing in the previous iteration of the case because once the judge realized we were settling, the hearing was canceled.”
He said the school board is taking it to court this time because there’s been a change in state law that would “permit [the school board] to discriminate where they couldn’t’ discriminate before.”
Tilley is referring to Senate Bill 1076, which went into effect July 1, 2013. Two of Lake County’s School Board members, Tod Howard and Bill Mathias, successfully lobbied the Florida Legislature in Tallahassee to change state law and remove the definition of “secondary schools,” which had previous been defined as grades 6–12.
“They are relying on that change to say the Equal Access Act, which relies on state law to define secondary schools, doesn’t apply,” Tilley said. “Our view is that secondary schools do include middle schools.”
Tilley said the ACLU also has a first amendment claim in the case.
“Under the 1st amendment, [Carver Middle School] cannot deny student speech unless it would cause a substantial and material disruption in schools,” he said. “The school is alleging that a different standard applies, and we disagree.”
The Federal Access Act, passed in 1984, requires secondary schools to provide equal access to extracurricular clubs. Religious groups initially lobbied for the law, to ensure students have the right to conduct Bible Study programs after school.