In February 2020, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Legal, along with private counsel Womble Bond Dickinson, Brazil & Burke, and law professor Clifford Rosky, filed a federal lawsuit challenging a South Carolina statute that prohibits public school health education from including any discussion of same-sex relationships except in the context of sexually transmitted diseases. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the student organization Gender and Sexuality Alliance, as well as the Campaign for Southern Equality and South Carolina Equality Coalition, including their members who are public school students in the state.
Gender and Sexuality Alliance v. Spearman, 20-cv-00847-DCN (D.S.C.), alleged that S.C. Code § 59-32-30(A)(5), a provision of South Carolina’s 1988 Comprehensive Health Education Act, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ). The statute prohibited districts from including in their health education any “discussion of alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted diseases.”
The law singles out LGBTQ students for negative treatment. It prevents LGBTQ students from receiving any health education about their relationships except in the context of sexually transmitted diseases, without imposing any comparable restriction on health education about heterosexual people. Any teacher who violates the provision is subject to dismissal.
On March 11, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina entered a consent decree that declares South Carolina’s 1988 discriminatory anti-LGBTQ curriculum law unconstitutional and bars its enforcement.
Meet the Plaintiffs
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of these organizations and their members who are public school students in South Carolina who are impacted by the anti-LGBTQ law.
Gender and Sexuality Alliance
The Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) is an organization of high school students at a public magnet school in the Charleston County School District. The group’s president is Eli Bundy, a tenth grader at the school.
South Carolina Equality
South Carolina Equality is a non-profit organization with the mission to secure equal civil and human rights for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender South Carolinians and their families, and has a vision of a South Carolina where everyone is equal.
Campaign for Southern Equality
The Campaign for Southern Equality works for full LGBTQ equality – both legal and lived – across the South. Our work is rooted in commitments to empathy and equity.
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Celebrating the Consent Decree Barring Enforcement of the Anti-LGBTQ Law
Eli Bundy, Gender and Sexuality Alliance
“I am very excited that this discriminatory law can no longer be enforced in South Carolina, and I hope we can continue to work toward a more accepting and equal state-wide community. I know how frustrating it can feel to be told by a teacher that they can’t talk about who you are. I’m so grateful that no other South Carolina student will have to go through school feeling like they have been erased.”
Kevin Hall, Womble Bond Dickinson
“In South Carolina, people across the political and ideological spectrum understand that no one should be excluded because of their LGBTQ identity. We have common ground in the shared goal of ensuring that all students are safe, respected, and supported in school. This court order means that we can put this clearly unconstitutional 32-year-old law behind us, and it marks a new day for LGBTQ students here, who can now go to school without the stigma that this law cast over them. My hat’s off to the courageous students in South Carolina who spoke out against this damaging law.”
Why We Challenged the Anti-LGBTQ Curriculum Law
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Campaign for Southern Equality
“Every young person in South Carolina – including those who are LGBTQ – deserves an equal opportunity to learn and to thrive. But the current anti-LGBTQ curriculum law both stigmatizes LGBTQ youth and denies them access to critical information about their health. The law sends a chilling signal to LGBTQ youth, and it’s long past time to strike it down.”
Jeff Ayers, South Carolina Equality
“South Carolina’s Anti-LGBTQ Curriculum Law was enacted in 1988 as a provision of the Comprehensive Health Education Act. It had the express and singular purpose of voicing moral disapproval of non-heterosexual people, and it serves no state purpose at all. This statute attempts to, at best ignore, and at worst to completely stigmatize young people who identify as LGBTQ in South Carolina and it must be struck down.”
Julie Wilensky, National Center for Lesbian Rights
“The state law sends a message to students that ‘homosexual relationships’ are so shameful or dangerous that they can only be discussed in a negative context. This contributes to a hostile school climate in a state where nearly 90% of LGBTQ middle and high school students regularly hear homophobic remarks from other students.”
Peter Renn, Lambda Legal
“This discriminatory law is archaic, outrageous, and profoundly damaging to LGBTQ students, treating them as pariahs. It should come as no surprise that where the government stigmatizes a group of students as ‘unmentionable,’ it risks breeding a school environment hostile to LGBTQ students, with more harassment and abuse in classrooms, hallways, and locker rooms.”
Clifford Rosky, Professor of Constitutional Law
“We were especially delighted to see that the state’s leading attorney, the South Carolina Attorney General, agrees that the anti-LGBTQ Curriculum Law is unconstitutional. For now, this discriminatory law unfortunately remains in effect, and it inflicts ongoing harm against LGBTQ students in South Carolina’s public schools. To protect these students, we’ll need a judge to prevent the law’s enforcement, or state lawmakers to repeal it – as lawmakers have recently done in Utah and Arizona.”