The Equal Access Act is a federal law passed in 1984 to ensure that federally funded schools give extra-curricular clubs equal access. The law was originally lobbied for by Christian groups who wanted to ensure that Christian students could conduct Bible study programs during lunch and after school. It has since been used as a tool for gay-straight alliance organizations to gain equal footing on school campuses with other extra-curricular activities.
The act only applies to schools that offer secondary education and a “limited open forum” for at least one student-led extra-curricular activity. If the school meets those conditions, it must allow other groups to meet outside of class time and give them equal access to meeting spaces and school publications. In a decision rendered last week, Carver Middle School Gay-Straight alliance v. School Board of Lake County Florida, the Eleventh Circuit court of appeals reaffirmed the vitality of the Equal Access Act and widened its scope as it applied to Florida schools.
In Carver, a group of middle school students in Lake County, Florida attempted to form a gay-straight alliance, but their application was denied because they were not able to show that the club would promote critical thinking. The unofficial club brought an equal access challenge, arguing that the policy requiring clubs to show that they promoted critical thinking violated the Act.
The school board’s main argument was that the Equal Access Act did not apply to middle schools, since its terms explicitly refer to schools that offer “secondary education.” The school board argued that the term “secondary education” referred only to high schools. What constitutes “secondary education” is a question of state law under the Equal Access Act. Florida law does not provide a clear definition of what a “secondary school” or “secondary education” means, however the Eleventh Circuit found that the most applicable definition was “courses through which a person receives high school credit that leads to the award of a high school diploma.”
At first blush, the courts definition would not seem to apply to middle schools. However, Florida law has a requirement that every middle school must provide at least one high school mathematics class through which students can earn high-school credit. Thus, every Florida middle school, including Carver, is considered an institution that offers secondary education under the Equal Access Act. While the Carver plaintiffs have since graduated during the pendency of their lawsuit, the law that their efforts created will likely have ramifications for future gay-straight alliances in Florida.