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Orange County

School District Votes to Sue State

Westminster trustees agree 3 to 2 to become the plaintiff in Christian group's lawsuit over a regulation on gender anti-discrimination.

September 03, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Months after narrowly avoiding severe financial sanctions because of its controversial stand against a state anti-discrimination regulation, the Westminster School District resumed the fight Thursday, voting to sue the state Department of Education.

Voting 3 to 2, the small Orange County district agreed to become the plaintiff in a case planned and funded by the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based Christian legal organization that recently argued against same-sex marriages before the California Supreme Court.

At issue is a part of the state education code -- and the accompanying regulation written to enforce it -- that is meant to protect transsexual teachers and students, as well as others who do not conform to traditional gender roles, from discrimination at school.

Mark Bucher, the lawyer the district hired in April, said the definitions of "gender" in the education code and the regulation contradict each other. The lawsuit, he said, is aimed at forcing state education officials to rewrite the regulation.

The education code defines gender as a victim's biological sex or the perception of their sex by those accused of discriminating against them, while the regulation defines gender as "a person's actual sex or perceived sex."

The distinction between the two is important to trustees Judy Ahrens, Helena Rutkowski and Blossie Marquez. Citing their Christian beliefs, they have said the regulation is immoral because it allows people to define their gender.

State Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), a lawyer who has criticized the board, expressed anger at the board's decision and said the definitions are not contradictory.

"These three trustees have willingly allowed themselves to become a pawn of a much larger debate," he said. "Their vote underscores that they're not interested in the education of children, but rather pushing a conservative social agenda on all of California."

A spokesman for the Department of Education declined to comment.

Bucher and Alliance lawyer Robert Tyler said this was not a debate over morals.

The lawsuit, they said, is necessary to protect districts from discrimination claims that could arise because of the vague definitions.

With state schools chief Jack O'Connell threatening to withhold nearly $8 million in school funding, the three trustees repeatedly refused to revise the district's anti-discrimination policies to reflect the regulation's definition of gender.

In April, as a state deadline for compliance passed, the trustees relented and adopted a policy that technically satisfied O'Connell's demands. The threats of financial sanctions were dropped.

To assuage their moral objections, however, the board inserted language from the state code into the district policy to prohibit claims that are based on how a victim perceives his or her sex.

Throughout the debate, the trustees' stance has infuriated parents, teachers and other trustees who have accused the three of imposing their religious beliefs on the district and jeopardizing the education of its 10,000 students.

"I wish I could say I was surprised [about the lawsuit], but this is what Bucher and these three are about," said parent Louise MacIntyre, who is leading a campaign to recall Ahrens and Marquez. "We are a little school district with a really big problem."

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