Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance wins injunction for access to school resources

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A central Indiana school district must give the local high school’s gay-straight alliance access to the same advertising and fundraising resources as other noncurricular organizations, a federal judge has ruled, issuing an injunction after finding a violation of the Equal Access Act.

Judge James R. Sweeney of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana issued the injunction Wednesday against the South Madison School Corporation and Pendleton Heights High School. The Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance filed a lawsuit in September alleging the constitutional rights of its members were violated when the group was allegedly treated differently than other organizations at the high school.

Specifically, the GSA argued it was allowed to meet on the Pendleton Heights campus but was not allowed to use the school’s bulletin boards, advertise through the school radio station, fundraise or be listed in the school handbook.

According to the school, only “corporation sponsored” clubs are given access to such resources. One such organization, the school said, is the Outdoor Adventure Club. But “noncorporation sponsored” clubs such as the GSA and Fellowship of Christian Athletes are permitted only to meet at the school, not access the additional resources.

The school argued it treated all corporation sponsored clubs, which are curriculum-related, the same, and all noncorporation sponsored clubs, which are not curriculum related, the same, so there was no equal protection violation. But Sweeney disagreed, relying on Bd. Of Educ. of Westside Cmty. Schs. V. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990) to find the school district had violated the Equal Access Act.

Mergens distinguished “noncurriculum related” school organizations from those related to curriculum. To be curriculum related, an organization must be required for a course, participation must result in academic credit, the organization’s subject matter must be related to the body of courses as a whole, or the subject matter must be taught, or will soon be taught, in a regularly offered course.

Any student group not meeting one of those four factors is “noncurriculum related” under Mergens, Sweeney wrote.

“The Outdoor Adventure Club fits squarely within the Mergens definition of ‘noncurriculum related,’ notwithstanding the School’s assertion otherwise,” he wrote. “And since the Outdoor Adventure Club receives benefits the PHGSA does not — inclusion in the handbook, permission to fundraise, access to the bulletin boards and radio station — the PHGSA’s rights have been violated under the Act.”

Pendleton Heights argued the Outdoor Adventure Club was curricular because it was “directly related to the physical education curriculum” of the school. But “the School’s argument is nearly identical to the one the Supreme Court rejected in Mergens,” Sweeney wrote.

“There, school officials asserted that Subsurfers, a club for students interested in scuba diving, was curriculum related because it furthered ‘one of the essential goals of the Physical Education Department — enabling students to develop lifelong recreating interests.’ The Court rejected the notion that ‘curriculum related’ means ‘anything remotely related to abstract educational goals,’” Sweeney wrote.

“Like the Subsurfers scuba diving club, the Outdoor Adventure Club is noncurriculum related,” he continued. “And since the outdoor Adventure Club can use the School’s bulletin boards, advertise through announcements on the School’s radio station, fundraise, and be listed in the student handbook, while the PHGSA cannot, the PHGSA has been denied ‘equal access’ under the Act.”

The GSA had also raised First Amendment and equal protection clause claims, but Sweeney did not address those issues.

The judge concluded the factors of a preliminary injunction analysis weighed in favor of the GSA, although the school argued “an injunction would force it to allow all noncurriculum related groups to publicize, thereby turning two-to-three-minute school announcements into a longer, unmanageable affair; the bulletin boards would become covered with flyers; and the student handbook would have to be reprinted.”

“Not only do these harms appear minor,” the judge wrote, “but the School could mitigate them, such as by instituting a one-flyer-per-club-per-bulletin-board limit, provided the limits apply equally to all noncurriculum related groups; or by prohibiting all noncurriculum related clubs from meeting on campus, thereby avoiding implication of the Act at all.”

Lastly, Sweeney chose to issue the injunction without bond, finding no likely monetary harm to the school.

The case is Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance v. South Madison Community School Corporation, Principal, Pendleton Heights High School, 1:21-cv-02480.

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