Federal lawsuit seeks to halt controversial education bill

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SAN DIEGO, Calif. — A Feb. 15 hearing date has been set in federal court to hear motions in a lawsuit filed against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state over SB 777, a new education bill that redefines gender in public schools.

The suit, filed Nov. 27 in San Diego, seeks to overturn the law, which was signed by the governor after winning approval in both the senate and assembly. The law bans "promoting a discriminatory bias" against homosexuals, transsexuals, bisexuals and transgenders in all instructional materials and activities. The law also redefines gender into the state education code to include a person's "perceived" gender.

"We will be filing a motion for summary judgment on that," said Robert Tyler, chief counsel for Advocates for Faith and Freedom.

Equality California and the Gay Straight Alliance Network, which supported the bill, are also expected to use that hearing to ask the judge to dismiss the case.

"It is ironic that organizations that claim to support families are working to overturn a law that will protect students and help keep them in school," Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors said in a news release after the lawsuit was filed.

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, who authored the bill, reacted to the lawsuit by calling it a " fundraising ploy."

Tyler called the law a "breach of trust."

He announced its filing outside of Lincoln High School just hours after filing the lawsuit in U.S. District court. The school was selected for the news conference so that 16-year-old student and track standout Elizabeth Apgar could read her a written statement on how the law could impact her.

"The passage of SB 777 doesn't make any sense," she said, with her parents standing to the side. "When I come to school, I assume the school will have the best interest of all students in mind. I presume they will be able to protect my safety and privacy. Under this new law it is true that my school will not be able to keep the boys from coming into the girls' locker room and vice versa."

The issue of locker access is just one of the concerns of Tyler and his clients. Calling the law constitutionally vague, the attorney said teachers and educators would be forced to guess when a boy was a boy or when he perceived himself as a girl. The law, they said, also invades the privacy of students and staff. Classroom discussions could, he said, prohibit the discussion of mothers and fathers because someone might perceive the terms as biased.

Also at the news conference were Priscilla Schreiber and Jim Kelly, trustees of the Grossmont Union High School District, Pastor Miles McPherson of the Rock Church, and Ron Prentice, president of California Family Council.  Defendants for the suit include members of the California Education Committee LLC, which includes school board members, teachers, coaches, parents and students. Kelly and Schreiber, as individual board members, are among the plaintiffs. The committee is affiliated with the California Family Council.

Schreiber said the law would subject board officials to lawsuits while students were indoctrinated about alternative lifestyles.

She said it would pave the way for reverse lawsuits because SB 777 would transfer freedom of speech rights from one segment of students to another.

"As board trustees we absolutely care and have the greatest concern for all of our students, but we answer to the parents in our school district and we want to make sure that we have to re-identify, redefine and re-educate students outside of what the families have traditionally taught their families and have that all erased," she said.

She urged parents to study the law and to get involved by signing a petition to have SB 777 overturned.

As Tyler and his staff prepare the case, Karen England with the Capitol Resource Institute and a team of volunteers were processing thousands of petitions as part of a drive to put the law before the voters. Their initiative, launched in October, needed 434,000 signatures to qualify. To account for errors and duplications, their goal was to submit 777,000 signatures to the Secretary of State. The deadline to submit petitions was Jan. 4.

As of Dec. 20, England said there were 400,000 petitions in circulation, representing 4 million possible signatures. An estimated 150,000 signatures had been received with thousands more waiting to be processed. A pastor, for instance, called her in mid-December requesting enough petitions to serve his 8,000-member church. Another 125,000 petitions were sent to California clients of Focus on the Family.

She said also in mid-December, members of the Chinese Christian community have rallied, holding a Chinese-language news conference to promote the signature drive.

"We definitely have enough out in the field to qualify it," she said.

England is urging anyone with petitions to send them to her office right away so they can determine how many they have.

"We just need to get them back," she said. "They don't do any good sitting on the kitchen counter."

England, a long time public-policy advocate, said she's been impressed by the response to the cause.

"I've never, in 20 years of doing this in California, seen the Christians so engaged," she said. "It's been such an encouragement. They care about this issue. They  care about saving the kids in the classroom."

If the measure received enough signatures, the Jan. 11 implementation of the law would be delayed until after the election.