Thirteen national organizations promoting equality of rights have called on Governor Lincoln Chafee to veto a bill that they say would be a clear violation of federal anti-discrimination laws, “diminish educational opportunities for boys and girls alike,” and expose “school districts to the risk of costly litigation.” Among the groups signing the letter were the National Coalition of Women and Girls in Education, National Women’s Law Center, American Association of University Women, ACLU Women’s Rights Project, Women’s Sports Foundation, and the National Council of Jewish Women. That request follows a separate veto letter submitted by three local organizations: the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, the RI National Organization for Women, and the ACLU of Rhode Island.

The bill, S-12A as amended, would authorize public elementary and secondary schools to “provide extracurricular activities for students of one sex . . . [if] opportunities for reasonably comparable activities [are] provided for students of the other sex.”  In their letter to Chafee, the groups argued that “although the bill’s language may appear innocuous, it is both vague and over-broad,” and would encourage Rhode Island schools to engage in activities that violate federal laws “designed to prevent sex discrimination in educational programs and activities.”

The letter to the Governor notes:

Sex discrimination in public schools (including in extracurricular activities) is prohibited by federal statute, federal regulations, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution . . . But should this bill become law, it could lead schools to believe that single-sex programming is permitted, so long as a “reasonably comparable” activity is offered to students of the other sex.  That is not the operative legal standard.  The Constitution requires that public schools articulate an “exceedingly persuasive” justification for classifying students on the basis of sex, and demonstrate that the sex separation is substantially related to achieving that objective . . . This bill thus embodies a standard for sex-separate programming that is significantly weaker than that required by federal law, thereby misleading school officials . . . and exposing them and their school districts to the risk of costly litigation.

The legislation was prompted by an incident last year when a Cranston PTO, acting against school district policy, held a dance for female students and a field trip to a baseball game for male students. The group letter points out that the bill “not only extends beyond school dances to permit sex-separation of any and all extracurricular activities, but also invites the violation of federal antidiscrimination law by appearing to sanction activities that reflect sex stereotypes.”

The organizations said that the Cranston girl dance/boy baseball outing events “embodied the very type of sex stereotypes that school-related anti-discrimination laws are designed to prevent . . . Rhode Island public schools should not be in the position of telling girls and boys which programs or activities they should be interested in based solely on their sex.”

The local veto request letter from Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, RI NOW, and the ACLU called the bill an “incredible step backward” in violating the seminal 41-year-old federal law known as Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in educational institutions.

Women’s Fund of Rhode Island CEO Marcia Coné said today: “We have worked hard in our state to eliminate gender bias from all sectors and create a culture that is inclusive, where all have equal opportunity, whether social, cultural, economic, political, or educational.  By allowing sex discrimination in schools, our state is instead building barriers to the existence of equitable social and institutional systems where boys and girls can thrive and reach their full potential.”

RI NOW President Carolyn Mark added: “Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer. Public schools are supposed to be a place where, regardless of your gender, you have access to opportunities that are free of sex stereotypes, which limit a person's sense of who they are and who they want to or can be. When schools start deciding for kids that boys should engage in one kind of activity and girls another, they are acting in a way that is contrary to their public purpose. This legislation, as written, is overly broad and invites schools to do just that.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown noted: “Title IX has been critical in helping to eliminate sex discrimination from our educational system and, consequently, from our society. It is distressing that the General Assembly would seek to turn back the clock more than forty years. By encouraging school districts to violate this important anti-discrimination law, this bill also places school administrators at severe risk of legal liability.”