It's hard for readers to understand the details of a public-square debate about Equal Access laws if the news coverage never mentions Equal Access laws. Can I get an "Amen"?
A long-time reader of GetReligion recently sent me a pack of URLs pointing to coverage of debates -- public and in social media -- about the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance organization at Franklin County High School in rural Tennessee The coverage in The Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro has, in the past, featured quotes from a wide range of voices in this tense and at times nasty debate.
So what's the journalistic problem? Ironically, the best place to start is with an advocacy piece at the website of The New Civil Rights Movement. This piece is, as you would expect, packed with loaded language -- but look for the actual news development in this story.
School board members in Franklin County, Tennessee, may consider eliminating all extracurricular clubs in an effort to get rid of a newly formed Gay-Straight Alliance.
The GSA at Franklin County High School in Winchester has been under attack since it first met in January, with parents comparing it to ISIS, and students vandalizing the club's posters and wearing "Straight Pride" signs in protest. ...
In response to the controversy over the GSA, the Franklin County School Board has decided to draft new guidelines for student organizations. Under the federal Equal Access Act, officials must allow the GSA unless they eliminate all extracurricular clubs, from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to the Student Council.
What we have here is the flip side of debates led by secularists about the creation of Bible studies and prayer circles at public schools (think military academies, for example). The bottom line: People on both sides of these debates have First Amendment rights that must be protected. This truly liberal task is not easy in modern public schools.
Institutions funded by tax dollars are not supposed to discriminate on the basis of the content of student groups. Thus, religious speech is not uniquely dangerous in comparison with other forms of speech. The question is whether school leaders are treating the religious clubs better, or worse, than those dealing with other issues (think environmentalism, for example).
Now the same concept, in a public school, should apply to the Gay-Straight Alliance. Right?
The key is that the public officials have to use the same basic approach when dealing with all of these extracurricular organizations. They cannot discriminate on the basis of intellectual content. Thus, they have to accept them all -- giving all equal access to the facilities -- or ban them all.
That's a tough form of equal access. Goodbye Gay-Straight Alliance. Goodbye Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Now, read these two stories from DNJ.com -- the first report here, and the follow story here -- and look for evidence that the journalists covering the story grasp the connection between the law and this standoff in their region. (You can check out similar, but much shorter, reports from local television newsrooms here and here.)
I looked for an update on the earlier reports at DNJ.com but could not find one. However, you could see a hint in the most recent story that there was more to this debate than partisans waving Christian flags and rainbow flags at one another.
Chris Ball, a parent of Franklin County Schools students, asked people on both sides to stop making derogatory comments tied to students in the school system. He said school officials must focus on the safety of all students at school, even as he personally called for the group and others of a religious nature to move off-campus.
"For everyone here is who promoting hate, I beg you to stop," Ball said. "Our children are in the middle of this battlefield, it's hateful and it has to stop."
The board took no official action concerning the club on Monday night. The board discussed creating a unified policy for the creation of new student organizations in Franklin County Schools, though no vote was taken to approve those policies and procedures.
Once again, here is my question: How do you help readers understand the issues involved in this case without discussing Equal Access laws?
Think ahead to the next step of the debate. Let's say that the Gay-Straight Alliance continues and faces opposition from existing religious groups on campus. What happens when a local church proposes to organize an on-campus support group to oppose the bullying of young people who either want to live celibate lives consistent with centuries of Christian teaching or even want help controlling or changing their sexual behaviors?
At that point, partisans on the cultural left would begin to protest. But remember, the school cannot discriminate on the basis of the content of the speech in these groups.
You know, sooner or later, that religious parents are going to protest, oh, the creation of a Wiccan prayer circle in some public school or an atheist/agnostic un-prayer group. Again, Equal Access laws would apply.
If anyone sees an update on this Franklin County story, one that includes the Equal Access angle or misses it once again, please let me know. So far, the reporting on this tense standoff has a big hole in it.