When a high
school senior told her principal that students were taunting
her for being a lesbian, he told her homosexuality is wrong,
outed her to her parents, and ordered her to stay away
He suspended some
of her friends who expressed their outrage by wearing
gay pride T-shirts and buttons at Ponce de Leon High School,
according to court records. And he asked dozens of
students whether they were gay or associated with gay
Civil Liberties Union successfully sued the district on
behalf of a girl who protested against Principal David
Davis, and a federal judge reprimanded Davis for
conducting a "witch hunt" against gays. Davis was
demoted, and school employees must now go through
And despite all
that, many in this conservative Panhandle community still
wonder what, exactly, Davis did wrong.
"We are a small,
rural district in the Bible Belt with strong Christian
beliefs and feel like homosexuality is wrong," said Steve
Griffin, Holmes County's school superintendent, who keeps a
Bible on his desk and framed Scriptures on his office
Holmes County, on
the Georgia line, has about 20,000 residents. There is
some agriculture, but most people are employed either by
prisons or schools; some commute to the Gulf Coast to
work in tourism. Ponce de Leon, with fewer than 500
residents, has a cafe, a post office, and an
Many in the
community support Davis and feel outsiders are forcing their
beliefs on them. Griffin, who kicked Davis out of the
principal's office but allowed him to continue
teaching at the school, said high schoolers here
aren't exposed to the same things as kids in Atlanta or
"I don't think we
are that different from a lot of districts, at least
in the Panhandle, that have beliefs that maybe are different
from societal changes," Griffin said.
activists said that's no excuse for what Davis did.
began last fall when Davis, who did not return phone
messages from the Associated Press, admonished the senior,
who is identified only as "Jane Doe" in court records
and whose friends say she doesn't want to talk about
donned gay pride T-shirts and rainbow-colored clothing when
they found out how Davis had treated her, and he questioned
many of them about their sexuality and association
with gay students. Some were suspended.
on what can only be characterized as a 'witch hunt' to
identify students who were homosexual and their supporters,
further adding fuel to the fire," U.S. district judge
Richard Smoak recounted in his ruling. "He went so far
as to lift the shirts of female students to ensure the
letters 'GP' or the words 'Gay Pride' were not written
on their bodies."
an 11th-grader who took part in the protests, complained
to her mother, Ardena, a 40-year-old corrections officer and
mother of three. Ardena Gillman called the ACLU, even
though she knew people would be angry.
"I just felt like
I had to stand up for the kids. Heather wanted to do
this, and I had to back her," she said.
Ardena hoped to
protect the students' freedom of speech -- whether it was
the freedom to wear Confederate flag T-shirts to show
Southern pride or the freedom to wear rainbow T-shirts
to support gay rights.
repeatedly ruled that similar student protests are
constitutional as long as they are not disruptive.
"I think a shirt
that says 'I support gays' is very different from a
shirt that says 'Gays are going to hell,'" said Benjamin
Stevenson, an ACLU attorney. "One can be very
disruptive for a child's self-esteem; the other
supports other people and their ideas."
also knew some of the students would need to learn to be
when these kids get out in the real world after they
leave Ponce de Leon and they have a black, homosexual
supervisor at their job?" she said.
The ACLU sued in
January, and Smoak ruled this summer that Davis violated
Heather Gillman's rights.
"I emphasize that
Davis's personal and religious views about
homosexuality are not issues in this case. Indeed, Davis's
opinions and views are consistent with the beliefs of
many in Holmes County, in Florida, and in the
country," Smoak wrote in an opinion released last
month. "Where Davis went wrong was when he endeavored to
silence the opinions of his dissenters."
As Ardena Gillman
suspected, the lawsuit created hard feelings in town.
A Wal-Mart worker
yelled at her, accusing her of trying to "bankrupt"
the school district, which was ordered to pay $325,000
in ACLU attorney fees. One of her friends has refused to
talk to her because the lawsuit conflicted with the
woman's religious beliefs.
hail Davis as a hero.
"David Davis is a
fine man and good principal, and we are a gentle,
peaceful, Christian, family-oriented community," said Bill
Griffin, 73, and a lifelong Ponce de Leon resident who
is no relation to the district superintendent. "We
aren't out to tar and feather anyone."
The lawsuit could
reflect a division between the high school students who
have grown up in an era of gay tolerance and the community's
elders, said Gary Scott, a school board member.
"But I think
that's less of an issue here than in Miami or
Minnesota," he said.
scathing rebuke left Scott questioning how his community's
beliefs could be so different from the judge's opinion.
"I guess I didn't
realize we were this bad," Scott said. (AP)