Utah Responds to Ropes & Gray Suit by Safeguarding Rights of LGBT Students in School Districts Throughout the State
Ropes & Gray, Equality Utah, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights today announced a resolution to a Federal lawsuit, brought in October 2016, challenging Utah laws that restricted classroom discussions regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
Last October, Equality Utah and three Utah public school students, represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and Ropes & Gray, filed the lawsuit challenging state laws that ban supportive speech about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Utah public schools. Earlier this year, in direct response to the lawsuit, legislation was introduced in the Utah legislature to remove the challenged provisions, and the parties agreed to put the case on hold while the legislature worked on a solution. On March 8, the Utah Legislature passed a bill repealing the state law that had prohibited supportive discussions of homosexuality in public and charter school curricula and classrooms. The legislation passed with bipartisan support by a 27-1 vote in the Senate and a 68-1 vote in the House and was signed by Governor Gary Hebert.
Thereafter, the Utah State Board of Education revised its regulations to comply with the new law, and it agreed to take the additional step of clarifying that all manner of discrimination targeting Utah students is unacceptable. The Board has sent a letter to all Utah public school districts to ensure compliance with the Board’s updated regulations.
“The State of Utah and Utah State Board of Education made the right choice by taking action to ensure that every student has equal worth, and to recognize that the state has no right to censor the important conversations that take place in its schools,” said Ropes & Gray appellate & Supreme Court partner Douglas Hallward-Driemeier.
“Laws that censor supportive speech about LGBT people in schools create a toxic culture of silence and shame for LGBT students and make it much more likely that they will be ostracized and bullied,” said NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter. “Schools should be a place where young people feel safe and supported, not made to feel their very existence is too shameful and stigmatized to be acknowledged.”
The settlement also addressed individual claims brought by Ropes & Gray and NCLR on behalf of a gender nonconforming kindergarten plaintiff who experienced severe verbal and physical harassment resulting from the hostile climate created by these policies.
"This settlement is a historic victory for LGBT students and teachers, and for everyone learning and working in Utah's public schools,” said Equality Utah Advisory Council Member Clifford Rosky. “Under the Board of Education's new policy, bullying and discrimination have no place in our state's public schools. As the Board has now clarified, every student in Utah public schools is entitled to an education free from all manner of bullying or discrimination based religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity."
The cross-office Ropes & Gray team working on a pro bono basis is led by Mr. Hallward-Driemeier and includes business & securities litigation counsel Jeremiah Williams; government enforcement associates Michelle Behrens and Michael Jo; business & securities litigation associate Rebecca Harlow; litigation associates Shelby Cuomo, Salmah Rizvi, and Talia Nissimyan; corporate associate Wyatt McKean; paralegals Sophia Antzoulatos and Clare Murphy, and legal executive assistant Justine Deitz.