Judge: Prom not required in Itawamba

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

ABERDEEN – Itawamba Agricultural High School’s prom will be sponsored by parents, not by the school district.
In a ruling that satisfied both sides, a federal judge ruled Tuesday that the district should not be forced to sponsor the event, which it had announced it would not host after a lesbian student had challenged the policy banning same-sex dates.
However, Senior U.S. Judge Glen H. Davidson also said in his 12-page opinion that the district violated senior Constance McMillen’s First Amendment rights when it said she could not attend the dance with a same-sex date or wear a tuxedo.
Davidson wrote that the school board’s “motive” behind canceling the prom “was Constance’s requests” and the ACLU’s demand letter sent on her behalf.
Attorneys Kristy Bennett and Christine P. Sun, who represented McMillen, said they likely will not appeal the ruling but will seek compensatory damages against the district. Bennett said that suit could be filed in the next couple weeks, and the amount of damages is unknown.
They also said the ruling establishes a national precedent for same-sex couples who want to attend their proms.
Itawamba parents have planned an alternate prom for the school’s juniors and seniors for April 2 at the Tupelo Furniture Market. McMillen said organizers of that event have told her that she is invited.
“I think the judge made a great decision,” McMillen said. “Even though he’s not forcing the school to hold a prom, I understand where he is coming from in that it would inconvenience a lot of people to move the prom from the Furniture Market back to the school.
“I’m glad he realized that the school violated my First Amendment rights, and I’m glad it is understood that girls can go to their girlfriend’s prom and girls can wear tuxes.”
McMillen expected to be back at school today and said she hoped to attend the private prom, if she didn’t sense too much hostility.
“I don’t know how people feel about everything,” McMillen said.
Davidson’s ruling came on a motion for a preliminary injunction filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on March 11, one day after the school district announced that it would no longer sponsor its prom but hoped that private citizens would do so.
If granted, the injunction would have forced the district sponsor the prom and allowed McMillen to attend with her girlfriend.
Though he ruled that McMillen’s rights were violated, Davidson said that forcing the district to hold the prom would not serve the public interest since parents had already planned an event that would be “open to all IAHS students.”
Granting the ACLU’s request, he wrote, “would defeat the purpose and efforts” of the parents who had been sponsoring the private prom.
Benjamin Griffith, an attorney who represented the district, said he was pleased with the court’s order to deny the injunction.
“The good thing about it is the community is pulling together to make this possible for all the students,” Griffith said, “and I think that is a positive thing for all involved.”
Itawamba County School Board attorney Michele Floyd said in a statement that “it is our hope and desire that we can now get back to our core mission of educating all the students of Itawamba County, Mississippi.”
But the other side claimed success, as well. Bennett, legal director for the ACLU of Mississippi, said the judge’s decision provides rights to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth around the country.
“We consider this a victory because we believe this establishes precedents that schools can’t deny same-sex couples from attending the prom or keep girls from wearing tuxedoes,” Bennett said.
Sun, senior counsel with the ACLU national LGBT Project, said the ruling “vindicates Constance’s rights.”
Bennett said she felt there was “a slim chance” that the organization would be able to get the district to host the prom.
“While we were a little disappointed, we were not surprised, and he gave us more than we hoped for in ruling they violated her rights,” Bennett said.

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.

Click video to hear audio