Two gay civil rights organizations filed suit Thursday in federal court in Tucson challenging the legality of what is know as Arizona’s “no promo homo” law.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Equality Arizona and an unnamed Tucson gay student, says the law “discriminates against non-heterosexual students on the basis of sexual orientation and places them in an expressly disfavored class.”
At issue is a section of the state education code that prohibits instruction that “promotes a homosexual lifestyle” or “portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style” when teaching about AIDS and HIV.
That, according to attorneys, is unconstitutional because it singles out a class of students —those who are gay — for negative treatment based on their sexual orientation.
“The negative impact is significant, communicating to teachers and students that there is something so undesirable, shameful, or controversial about ‘homosexuality’ that any positive portrayal of non-heterosexual people or relationships must be barred,” the lawsuit states.
“It’s essentially communicating to students and the entire school community that there’s something wrong with this group of students,” said Peter Renn, an attorney with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of the two organizations providing the legal help for the lawsuit. “That, in itself, stigmatizes LGBTQ students and puts them at risk for harassment, discrimination and bullying.”
That’s not the only problem challengers find with the law.
Renn points to another section, which forbids teachers from saying that there are safe methods of homosexual sex, yet has no such restriction on teaching heterosexual safe sex. That, the lawsuit says, not only deprives LGBTQ students of equal educational opportunities but also exacerbates the health risks that these students already face.
“We’re talking about information here that could be potentially life saving,” said Renn.
“Meanwhile, the state is essentially playing politics with students’ lives by forbidding medically accurate and age-appropriate information to be taught to students,” he continued.
Renn said that’s particularly important as there has been a significant increase in the rate of newly diagnosed cases of HIV in Arizona.
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to declare the statutes and companion rules illegal and to enjoin Kathy Hoffman, the state superintendent of public instruction, and the state Board of Education from enforcing the provisions.
Hoffman told Capitol Media Services she agrees with the challengers. In fact, she asked the House Education Committee earlier this year to repeal the statutes.
“This policy is not just outdated,” she said. “It has always been harmful and wrong.”
Renn said he was glad that Hoffman spoke out.
“I think it speaks volumes that the state’s top education official agrees that this law contributes to an unsafe school environment,” he said.
Hoffman said it’s not just the state law that’s a problem. She pointed out that the Board of Education has a policy on its books saying schools should promote “monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”
“This is not inclusive of all of our students,” Hoffman said. She intends to ask the board to rescind the policy, regardless of what happens with the lawsuit, she said.
The statute dates back nearly three decades.
The resulting stigma, say the lawyers, results in lower self-esteem and greater risk-taking behaviors, which in turn can affect the higher risk that LGBTQ youths have for suicide and depression.
Conversely, the attorneys say, in places with a “positive school climate” there is less bullying, lower depression and fewer unexcused absences among LGBTQ students.
According to the lawsuit, the unnamed Tucson student began experiencing bullying while attending a public middle school, not only being called names but also getting no support from teachers and administrators.
The student subsequently transferred to a charter school but plans to attend Tucson High Magnet School for ninth grade, where HIV/AIDS will be taught separately using the current state-law guidelines for how it can be taught. The result, the lawsuit says, is the student “will face further stigma and be denied equal educational opportunities because of the law.”
Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, supports the law.
In a prepared statement Thursday, Herrod said she believes harassment or bullying of any student is “unacceptable.” But she said the law itself deals only with instruction on AIDS, and that is important for “the safety of our children.”
Herrod did not address the fact that the statute in question allows the teaching of “safe” sex for heterosexual students while telling homosexual students there is no such thing.
Hoffman, however, said while the statute deals only with HIV and AIDS, teachers are afraid of mentioning homosexuality at all for fear of running afoul of the law.
“As a result, our students felt unsafe and not welcome, or even our parents that are part of the LGBTQ community did not feel safe or welcome in their schools,” Hoffman said. “And that’s why it’s been such a huge issue for me.”