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Op-ed: Why the White House Endorsement of SNDA Matters

Op-ed: Why the White House Endorsement of SNDA Matters

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The White House took a significant step toward equality on Friday announcing that President Obama fully supports the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act. The administration said the bills "will help ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying and harassment."

While these bills, as was evident by the co-endorsement by the White House, are both important and have complementary goals, the ACLU has long championed SNDA because of the profound impact it would have in improving the lives of LGBT students in the U.S. by ensuring that discrimination and harassment of students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity has no place in our country's public elementary and secondary schools. And, critically important to an organization like the ACLU, it would do so in a way that preserves the right of all students to speak freely, while protecting the right of all students to benefit equally from a public education.

Prior to last week, the administration would say only that they strongly supported SNDA's goals. With their endorsement, they have elevated SNDA and protections for LGBT youth and students to the very center of the LGBT community's legislative priorities in Congress.

Other LGBT-specific bills that have garnered an endorsement from the Obama administration include the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Respect for Marriage Act. To have protections for LGBT youth and students now alongside bills addressing workplace fairness and a Defense of Marriage Act repeal is a powerful statement about the importance of these issues to the White House and President Obama.

The need for SNDA's protections is very important and very real. In 2010, Mississippi student Constance McMillen, then in high school, simply wanted to attend her senior prom with her girlfriend. Instead of allowing her to do so, the school blocked her at every turn, initially cancelling the prom only to then stage a decoy, causing Constance repeated humiliation and harassment. Also in 2010, Wendy Walsh tragically lost her son Seth to senseless antigay harassment because his school would not intervene to protect him despite numerous pleas. Yet, rather than take this lying down both McMillen and Walsh stood up, tirelessly advocating on behalf of LGBT youth and students and the need for SNDA to be law.

Friday's White House endorsement further strengthens SNDA's position even as the current political make-up of Capitol Hill suggests this won't move in this Congress. It is important to note, however, that when it does pass Congress, it will do so, like repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, with Republican votes. Times are changing.

Writing in a "Room for Debate" on the question of whether support for gay rights is still controversial on the website of the New York Times recently, Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center said that while there remains a large partisan gap on acceptance of homosexuality in general and marriage for same-sex couples in particular, the politics around these issues are far different than they were even two election cycles ago. The ground is indeed shifting rapidly on these issues.

The White House endorsement of SNDA comes nearly 40 years after the enactment of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a landmark federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education - and on which SNDA is modeled. Since its enactment in 1972, Title IX has made an enormous difference in young people's lives, including those who are LGBT.

Hopefully in another 40 years, we will be looking back to celebrate the passage of SNDA - a cornerstone of federal civil rights law - and what it did to improve the ability of LGBT students to obtain a quality public education in a welcoming and affirmative school environment where discrimination and harassment of children based on their sexual orientation or gender identity is a bygone aspect of the past. That is this advocate's hope. Friday's endorsement of SNDA is a critical milestone on the way toward ultimately realizing this vision. The ball is now in Congress's court.

IAN THOMPSON is a legislative representative in the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office. Thompson works to advance the organization's civil liberties and civil rights agenda in Congress and the executive branch, with a focus on LGBT rights.
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