Update

The Itawamba County School District in rural Mississippi agreed to pay $35,000 to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Constance McMillen, a gay teen who wasn?t permitted to bring her girlfriend to the high school prom.

The District cancelled the Itawamba Agricultural High School prom after McMillen challenged rules that prohibited same-sex dates and allowed only boys to wear tuxedos. Parents and school officials later put on another prom, but the ACLU claimed that was just a cruel plan to get McMillen to attend a sham prom while her classmates attended a private event 30 miles away.

In March 2010, a federal court ruled that the School District violated McMillen?s First Amendment rights by cancelling the prom to prevent her from attending with her girlfriend. In settling the lawsuit, the District agreed to implement a policy that banned discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Update

Undaunted by the school district’s cancellation of the prom at Itawamba Agricultural High School, students and parents joined forces and have scheduled several proms for Friday, April 2, 2010. One prom, which will be held at the Fulton Country Club, was planned by students.

Constance McMillen, the Itawamba Agricultural High School student whose plan to take her girlfriend to the school’s prom?led the school district to cancel the?prom, has said she’ll go to the student-organized prom?with a female date, and perhaps even her father or a bodyguard.

One student-organizer said he and other classmates disagree over whether McMillen or the school district should be blamed for the prom’s cancellation. Generally, though, students have had enough of the nationwide controversy and debate. And, apparently, everyone’s ready to dance.

Original Article

Prom is a big night for a lot of seniors. After all, it’s the last “hurrah!” of a four-year trek through high school. The last dance may have happened already at one high school in Jackson, Mississippi, though.

Same-Sex Prom Date

Like thousands of high schools across the US, Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi was gearing up for prom. So were the students, especially the seniors, including Constance McMillen. Unlike most students at the school, however, McMillen wasn’t planning on the “traditional” prom date.

McMillen, a lesbian, planned on wearing a tuxedo and taking her girlfriend to the dance. Apparently, the Itawamba County School District didn’t like her idea. According to McMillen, she was told by school officials she couldn’t bring her girlfriend to the dance. In addition, she was told they’d likely be thrown out of the dance if they arrived separately and slow-danced together.

McMillen contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for help. The ACLU sent a letter demanding McMillen be allowed to wear a tux and bring her girlfriend to the prom. The school district responded by canceling the prom.

The ACLU countered by filing a lawsuit in federal court. As part of the suit, the ACLU is asking for a court order (called an “injunction“) requiring the school to reinstate the prom and let McMillen wear a tux and escort her girlfriend to it. The court will decide on the injunction on March 22.

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The Law

Did the school district violate any laws by canceling the prom? Probably, if it did so because of McMillen’s plans, as it seems it did. When it canceled the prom, the district didn’t mention McMillen’s name, but merely said it wouldn’t host the prom “due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events.” Recent events being, presumably, McMillen’s plans for the prom.

There are good legal arguments in favor of McMillen’s case:

  • Under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, as well as under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, public schools generally have to protect gay and lesbian students from being harassed or “bullied” by other students or school staff
  • According to the US Supreme Court, students don’t lose or “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.” So, students like McMillen have a First Amendment to be openly gay or lesbian and express themselves as they see fit (such as wearing a tuxedo), so long as it doesn’t materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school

Also, several states, such as?Massachusetts, have laws making it illegal to discriminate against gay and lesbian school students. And Jared Polis, a US Congressman from Colorado, is trying to pass a federal law against such discrimination.

Anyone who’s gay or lesbian, whether?a student or business professional, should stand-up for their rights. If you’re being harassed or treated unfairly, or if you see it happening to someone else, do something to stop it. Contact your state lawmakers and your representatives and senators in D.C. and encourage them to pass an anti-discrimination law.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • Can students wear a pro-gay or pro-lesbian T-shirt to school? What about shirts with anti-gay or anti-lesbian messages?
  • If McMillen wins her case, does that mean a male student can wear a dress to his prom?
  • Can my school stop me from forming a “Gay-Straight Alliance?”