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ACLU files suit against Mississippi school for canceling prom

4:54 PM, Mar 11, 2010   |    comments
Constance McMillen
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JACKSON, Miss. -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi today filed suit in federal court against the Itawamba County School System, which canceled the prom for one of its high schools when a student challenged a ban on bringing same-sex dates.

The federal suit asks the court to force the school board to reinstate the prom and alleges that district officials have violated the First Amendment rights of Constance McMillen, a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School.

PROM CANCELED: Lesbian petitions to bring same-sex date

"It's shameful and cowardly of the school district to have canceled the prom and to try to blame Constance, who's only standing up for herself," said Christine Sun, an attorney with the ACLU national LGBT Project. "We will fight tooth and nail for the prom to be reinstated for all students."

The school board met Wednesday and announced it was canceling the prom after McMillen challenged the same-sex date ban. The Mississippi ACLU, which is assisting McMillen, gave the district until Wednesday to change its policy.

"All I want is the same chance to enjoy my prom night like any other student. But my school would rather hurt all the students than treat everyone fairly," McMillen said in a prepared statement. "This isn't just about me and my rights anymore - now I'm fighting for the opportunity of all the students at my school to have our prom."

The suit asks for $1 in damages, plus legal fees and court costs.

In a statement, the school board said the controversy over the ban caused "distractions to the educational process" and it was calling off the April 2 dance "after taking into consideration the education, safety and well being of our students."

In the statement, school board members said they hoped a private group would host the event.

Mississippi ACLU legal director Kristy Bennett said school officials are trying to make a villain out of McMillen.

"She's fighting for everyone to be able to enjoy the prom," Bennett said in a statement released this morning. "The government, and that includes public schools, can't censor someone's free expression just because some other person might not like it."

McMillen, 18, said she was told by school administrators she could not bring her sophomore girlfriend to the dance. She said she also was told she could not wear a tuxedo, as she had planned.

On Feb. 5, students were given a memo specifically banning same-sex dates. State records show a little more than 700 students attend the school in Fulton, which is 25 miles east of Tupelo.

Chris Joyner, The Clarion-Ledger

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