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Huntsman Signs Bill that Could Allow Schools to Ban Gay-Straight Alliance

Huntsman Signs Bill that Could Allow Schools to Ban Gay-Straight Alliance

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Gov. Jon Huntsman signed a bill into law Friday that would allow school districts to ban gay-straight alliances if they do not "maintain the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior."

The new law applies to all student clubs, but is targeted at gay-straight alliances. Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, believes the student clubs "indoctrinate" students into a "gay lifestyle."

Students in gay-straight alliances say they promote tolerance and provide a place homosexual students can feel comfortable.

Utah has targeted gay-straight alliances for years.

The first such club in Utah was formed in 1995 at East High School. The Salt Lake City School District banned all non-curricular clubs that year to prevent the club's establishment. After lawsuits and student protests, the district reversed its decision in 2000 to allow all clubs, including the gay-straight alliance.

Parental fears over gay-straight alliances popped up again in 2005. That's when a gay-straight alliance club formed at Provo High School in conservative Utah County, where the Mormon church-owned Brigham Young University also is located.

The new law has more than a dozen pages of regulations, including requiring parental permission to join a club, a faculty sponsor for the club, prohibiting students at another school from joining the club and submitting written materials to the principal within 24 hours after a meeting so parents can review them.

"There were prior versions of this bill I would have vetoed. However, this legislation simply codifies items already in the State Board of Education rules and makes clear that it is not targeting any one club or organization," Huntsman, a Republican, said in a prepared statement.

However, during legislative debate, bill sponsor Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, said the entire reason he brought the bill forward is because parents in Provo had complained about a gay-straight alliance there.

In a letter to Huntsman, the American Civil Liberties Union stated its opposition to the bill because it fears schools will use the law as a way to violate the Federal Equal Access Act, which prohibits schools from discriminating against clubs based on "political, philosophical or other content of the speech" at student meetings.

Margaret Plane, legal counsel for ACLU of Utah, said she was disappointed with Huntsman's decision.

"The language, it's ambiguous enough that some schools may view it as permission to ban clubs they or their community find to be controversial. Under the Equal Access Act, that's not permissible," she said. "(If a district does that) the state will be responsible for defending a lawsuit for which potentially they shouldn't have had to."

There are about a dozen gay-straight alliances in Utah schools. The Senate's only openly gay member, Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, argued against the bill because he said it was vague and could create different standards for school clubs throughout the state.

The state Board of Education also asked Huntsman to veto the measure, saying it wasn't necessary because state and district policies already regulate student clubs.

Huntsman's spokesman, Mike Mower, said Friday that the governor believes the law will provide a "good framework" for school districts when regulating clubs. He said the most important part of the law is that parental permission is now required for a student to join a club. Many opponents of the law, including McCoy, said they would have supported the bill if that were its primary thrust.

However, the ACLU said even that poses a concern.

"Mandating parental permission might violate student association rights," said Plane. "Of course parents have right to direct their children's raising, but in the high school context we're talking about mature minors who are developing and giving a parent a possibly arbitrary veto over joining a club."

In Utah, most residents and lawmakers -- including Huntsman -- are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which considers homosexuality a sin.

On the Net: House Bill 236 7/82007/htmdoc/hbillhtm/HB0236S07.htm

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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