The case of the Mississppi school district which cancelled a prom because a lesbian student wanted to bring her girlfriend hit a courtroom Monday.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing in U.S. District Court to force the Itawamba County school district to sponsor the prom and allow Constance McMillen to escort her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo.
School officials told the judge there were issues with the prom even before McMillen approached them. Schools Superintendent Teresa McNeece and school board Chairman Eddie Hood testified that they had discussed not sponsoring the prom even before McMillen challenged a rule that prohibits same-sex dates. They said they had concerns about liability problems, including possible use of alcohol and drugs at a school-sponsored event.
But they also said they decided to call off the April 2 prom at Itawamba Agricultural High School because McMillen's challenge to the rules had caused disruptions.
"We were being hounded every day. Our students were being hounded," McNeece said. "We were having a tough time of any bell-to-bell instruction."
On cross-examination, school officials did not give specific examples of classroom disruptions.
ACLU attorney Kristy Bennett said in court that the district violated McMillen's First Amendment rights and that it was the decision to cancel the prom — not McMillen's request to bring her girlfriend — that caused the disruptions school officials described.
"Any disruption came after the actual cancellation of the prom," Bennett said.
McMillen testified the district's decision led to hostility toward her on campus. She said she left school early the day after the district's decision and didn't go at all the next day.
"There were so many dirty looks," McMillen said. "A lot of people didn't like me very much."
In closing arguments, Bennett said the district "shouldn't be able to censor Ms. McMillen's speech simply by canceling the prom."
Ben Griffith, an attorney representing the school district, said holding or attending a prom is not a constitutional right.
U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson, who is hearing the case, did not say when he would rule, but said he wants to do it quickly because "time is of the essence."
In the meantime, plans are being made for at least two private proms. Parents of children at the school are organizing one. And so are the ACLU and gay rights groups. Their prom will be geared towards gay students, but everyone is invited.