Pendleton high school sued for alleged violations of students’ rights in gay-straight alliance

A central Indiana school corporation has been accused of violating the constitutional rights of students participating in the local high school’s gay-straight alliance.

The South Madison Community School Corporation and the principal of Pendleton Heights High School were sued in federal court Wednesday for alleged violations of the First Amendment, the Equal Access Act and equal protection rights. The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed the lawsuit in the Indiana Southern District Court on behalf of the Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance.

According to the complaint, the Pendleton Heights GSA is a noncurricular club that has a faculty sponsor and meets in a classroom. However, according to school principal Connie Rickert, GSA is not an “official” club, meaning it cannot advertise on school bulletin boards or the school radio station, nor can it fundraise on school property, the complaint alleges. Also, the club is not listed in the student handbook.

“Due to the inability to advertise and expose students to its existence and purpose, PHGSA’s membership is less than it would be if it was treated as an ‘official’ club,” the complaint alleges. Also, “(d)ue to the inability of PHGSA to advertise and attract student members it is severely hindered in its beneficial function to be a place of shelter, support, and education, not just for gay, lesbian, transgender, and non-binary students, but for all Pendleton Heights High School students.”

Because Rickert allows the GSA and other noncurricular groups to meet at the school, a “limited open forum” is created under the Equal Access Act. The defendants’ “failure to allow PHGSA the same access to school facilities and avenues of communications provided to other student groups violates the Act,” the plaintiffs allege.

They also allege the defendants are violating the First Amendment by their “failure to allow PHGSA the same access to school facilities and avenues of communications provided to other student groups … .” Additionally, their equal protection rights are violated by the “distinction made by defendants between official and unofficial clubs … .”

The GSA is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as costs and attorney fees.

“Students at Pendleton Heights High School may participate in non-curricular clubs recognized by the school,” Ken Falk, ACLU of Indiana legal director, said in a Wednesday news release. “By creating additional hurdles for Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance such as censoring the group’s promotions and prohibiting fundraising, the school is infringing on these students’ rights.”

The defendants were listed as proceeding pro se as of Thursday morning, according to online court records. Indiana Lawyer has reached out to Rickert and South Madison Schools Superintendent Mark Hall for comment.

The case is Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance v. South Madison Community School Corporation; Principal, Pendleton Heights High School, 1:21-cv-2480.

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