US School Prom Ruling 'Violated Lesbian Student's Rights'
Mississippi school censured for cancelling prom when 18-year-old Constance McMillen asked to bring her girlfriend
A Mississippi school district violated a lesbian student's rights by banning her from taking her girlfriend to a prom, a federal judge has ruled, but he stopped short of forcing the district to hold the event.
US district judge Glen Davidson refused the American Civil Liberties Union's demand to force the Itawamba county school district to stage the prom on 2 April. However, he said cancelling it violated 18-year-old Constance McMillen's rights and that he would hold a trial on the issue.
That would come too late for the prom to be salvaged at Itawamba agricultural high school. Still, Kristy Bennett, the union's Mississippi legal director, called the decision a victory.
The union sued the district to force it to put on the prom and allow McMillen to take her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo. School officials said in US district court this week that they decided to cancel it because McMillen's challenge to the rules had caused disruption.
The judge noted that McMillen has been openly gay since she was in the eighth grade and that she intended to communicate a message by wearing a tuxedo and escorting a same-sex date. "The court finds this expression and communication falls squarely within the purview of the first amendment," he said.
McMillen said she was happy about the ruling but did not know what to expect when she returned to school. She attended classes a day after the decision on 10 March to cancel the prom. But she said the hostility and comments from other students led her to miss school. She skipped class on Tuesday to go to the doctor. "My nerves are shot," she said.
District officials said in a statement that they were ready to get back to educating students.
Davidson said a private prom parents were planning would serve the same purpose as a school-sponsored one. He wrote that "requiring defendants to step back into a sponsorship role at this late date would only confuse and confound the community on the issue".
McMillen is not sure if she will go to the dance."I'm going to school tomorrow and will get a feel of how everybody feels about me," she said. "That will help me make my decision about whether I'm going to the private prom. "I want to go because all my junior and senior class will be there, but I don't want to be somewhere I'm not welcomed."
Ben Griffith, the school district's attorney, said his clients were pleased with the ruling. "What we're looking at now is the fact that the case is still on the docket for a trial on the merits," he said.
McMillen first approached school officials about taking her girlfriend in December and again in February. Same-sex prom dates had been banned in the past, but she hoped school officials would grant her request.
"I thought maybe the policy had been in place for a different reason," she testified at a hearing on the lawsuit. "I wanted to let them know how it made me feel. I felt like I couldn't go to the prom."
She was told that two girls could not attend together and she would not be allowed to wear a tuxedo, court documents show. The union issued a demand letter earlier this month and the district responded by cancelling the event. McMillen has kept her 16-year-old girlfriend out of the spotlight at the request of the girl's parents.
District officials said they felt that not hosting the prom was the best decision "after taking into consideration the education, safety and wellbeing of our students."
The 715-student high school is located in Fulton, a town of about 4,000 in rural, north Mississippi. The entire county school district has 3,588 students.
The case is typical of what is happening in schools across the country, said Charles Haynes, senior scholar for the Freedom Forum First Amendment Centre.
"This case is different because this is not just dress, it is a higher claim of personal identity," Haynes said. "I think that if the student prevails in this case, it will send a message to school districts that they need to accommodate students now who are openly gay and lesbian and want to participate in student activities."
McMillen has appeared on the the Early Show, the Wanda Sykes Show and the Ellen DeGeneres Show to talk about how she is fighting for tolerance. DeGeneres presented her with a $30,000 (£20,115) college scholarship from Tonic, a digital media company. A Facebook page set up by the ACLU for McMillen has over 400,000 fans.