South Carolina’s law banning the mention of same-sex relationships or other LGBTQ topics in sex education classes is unconstitutional and can no longer be enforced, a federal court ruled Wednesday.
Under the 1988 law, sex ed classes in the state’s public schools in the state could not have 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,” as the statute reads.
Students and LGBTQ organizations filed suit over the law two weeks ago, and Wednesday U.S. District Judge David C. Norton issued a consent decree declaring the law unconstitutional and unenforceable. The parties who sued and state officials agreed that the law discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause, and that it “is not rationally related to any legitimate state interest,” Norton wrote.
He ordered South Carolina Superintendent of Public Education Molly Spearman, the defendant named in the suit, to assure that sex education lessons throughout the state reflect his ruling. The South Carolina attorney general’s office had already issued an opinion that the law was most likely unconstitutional, so the state officials were amenable to the consent decree. It will not require schools to include same-sex relationships or other aspects of LGBTQ life in sex ed courses, but they will be free to do so if they wish.
The suit was filed by the Charleston County School of the Arts’ Gender and Sexuality Alliance, the Campaign for Southern Equality, and the South Carolina Equality Coalition. They were represented by Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and private attorneys.
“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,” Eli Bundy, a 10th-grader who is the president of the GSA, said in a press release from Lambda, NCLR, and the Campaign for Southern Equality. “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.”
The law not only affected sex ed lessons but created a stigma that led to harassment of LGBTQ students, according to those who challenged it.
“In South Carolina, people across the political and ideological spectrum understand that no one should be excluded because of their LGBTQ identity,” added Kevin Hall, office managing partner at Womble Bond Dickinson, a South Carolina law firm that assisted in the suit. “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.”
Similar laws remain in force in a handful of states, but in the past few years some other states have repealed such laws after being sued, including Arizona and Utah.