SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah lawsuit filed Monday seeks to open up a new front in LGBT rights following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage by challenging laws they say discriminate against LGBT students by restricting talk about homosexuality in schools.
The suit contends the law blocked teachers from helping a 7-year-old boy targeted by bullies for wearing girls’ clothes because it prevented them from saying it’s OK to be gay.
The rule is one of several similar measures around the country, said Christopher Stoll, a lawyer with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which joined Equality Utah on the lawsuit. The center may bring similar lawsuits in states like Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas.
“They’re extremely stigmatizing to LGBT students,” he said. “They basically send the message that their identity is something that’s too shameful to even be discussed in class.”
The state law was part of a wide-ranging sexual education bill passed with little dissent in 2001. It prohibits instruction on “advocacy of homosexuality,” along with contraceptives and sex outside marriage. The Utah State Board of Education adopted a similar rule the year earlier that applies to any class that covers marriage, childbirth or parenthood.
The Board of Education and Utah Attorney General declined comment on the lawsuit through spokespeople.
Utah’s conservative Sutherland Institute said in a statement that the lawsuit is not the way to address an issue that has wide-reaching implications. The group said it would stifle the essential voice of parents on the matter.
Gayle Ruzicka with the conservative Utah Eagle Forum said she worries the suit could also change a rule emphasizing abstinence before marriage.
“We don’t want to advocate for any kind of sex in the schools,” Ruzicka said.
Laws like this have been challenged a handful of times of the last three decades, said Yale University law professor William Eskridge. Utah’s law could be vulnerable because it prohibits talk about homosexuality in particular, he said.
The case marks the latest effort by LGBT advocates in Utah to tear down what they see as discriminatory practices in a conservative state that until recently was seen as a hostile environment for gays and lesbians.
Utah’s gay marriage ban was one of the first to be thrown out in December 2013, triggering a host of federal judges in other states to follow suit until the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal across the country in the summer of 2015.
That same year, Mormon church leaders gave key support to a state law that protects gay and transgender people from housing and employment discrimination, while also protecting the rights of religious groups and individuals.
The tone from leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has softened in recent years on gay rights issues, though the religion still opposes gay marriage and believes homosexuality activity is a sin.
Three of the plaintiffs in the case are Utah students, including a kindergartner who was targeted in a school bathroom, burned on a hot metal slide and beaten by other students in Weber County for wearing dresses, the suit states.
His mother was told in 2014 the law kept administrators from telling other kids it was OK to be gay or wear girl’s clothes, according to the suit. She eventually pulled her son out of school.
The law’s wording has “led to a great deal of confusion among teachers about what they can and can’t say,” Stoll said.
In 2005, the Nebo School District in central Utah wanted to replace their textbooks for psychology classes in high schools, but struggled to find any that didn’t discuss homosexuality.
In 2013, the Davis School District put a book about a lesbian couple raising children behind the counter and required parent’s permission to check it out, citing the state law. The ACLU of Utah sued over the decision, leading the district to put the book back on the shelves.
“It creates fear in teachers and the only way to comply with it is to not say anything about LGBT people at and not say anything about same-sex marriage,” said Clifford Rosky, an Equality Utah board member and University of Utah law professor.
The lawsuit also challenges a law put in place in the mid-1990s that bans gay-straight alliance clubs at school.