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A club for good old boys 

It would be terrific to know the extent to which the city's largest public school district relied on the "expertise" of Focus on the Family and other anti-gay groups in a lawsuit seeking recognition of a Gay-Straight Alliance at Palmer High School.

It would be just great to know why they are shelling out taxpayer money at a rate of an estimated $250 an hour to their attorney who just happens to be a Christian evangelical with close ties to Focus on the Family -- to battle said Gay-Straight Alliance.

Unfortunately, District 11 isn't saying much. The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on the behalf of several Palmer students, is designed to force the district to recognize a club that would provide a safe place for students to meet and learn about issues related to sexual orientation.

According to D-11 spokeswoman Elaine Naleski. "We have no comment at this time because of the ongoing trial."

Last week, an e-mail and response alluding to Focus on the Family's involvement in the battle against the gay club was introduced into evidence in district court in Denver. Written last Feb. 11, Board President Sandy Shakes asked the following of Superintendent Norm Ridder:

"I have heard talk about Focus on the Family or other organizations that may help with the legal fees, where are we on that issue? When will we discuss this or get information of substance?" Shakes wrote.

Three days later, on Valentine's Day, Ridder submitted the following response:

"As we discussed on the trip to Tampa, I have met with Mark (sic) Fey and Mike Haley from Focus on the Family. They are working with [our attorney] Stuart [Lark] on the Palmer case. Mark (sic) Fey mentioned that at a recent convention sponsored by the Gay-Straight Alliance Organization that Orange County and Colorado Springs has (sic) been targeted because of their christian (sic) fundamental (sic) positions."

In court last week, Ridder testified that District 11 never paid Focus on the Family for legal help. However, nobody has asked him the size or the scope of Focus' involvement -- or any other religious group for that matter. And, at least until the trial is over, Ridder is unavailable to explain how the district came to turn to a Christian ministry for legal advice to deny a club for gay students. But in the meantime, we can take a look at the players involved.

First, Marc Fey is the education policy analyst for Focus on the Family. To get an idea of where Mr. Fey is coming from, last year he wrote a glowing review of a book whose title is Reclaim Your School: 10 Steps to Practically and Legally Evangelize Your School.

Next meet Mike Haley, manager of the Homosexuality and Gender Issues department at Focus on the Family, which maintains that homosexuals can be "cured." He is also chairman of the board of Exodus International, which promotes the idea that being gay is a choice, and the wrong one at that.

Finally, there's Stuart Lark, a partner at Holme, Roberts & Owen, whose Web site lists his areas of specialty as health care, nonprofit organizations and religious organizations -- but not education. In 2002, Lark took a yearlong leave of absence to work for the Washington D.C.-based Christian Legal Society. He currently is the chairman of the board of the Colorado Springs chapter of the Christian Management Association, whose mission is "to equip our member organizations with management information, leadership training and strategic networking relationships so ministries are led and managed in God-honoring ways." At least one other board member of the networking group is from Focus on the Family.

All of these men are probably perfectly nice people. But with all due respect, why in the heck have school district officials allowed a taxpayer-supported entity to be manipulated by a group with a clear conflict?

This week, District 11 board member Karen Teja had this answer. "I'm appalled we would seek assistance from Focus on the Family," she said. "If the majority of the board feels the district has the right for litigation, we should seek it on our own merits versus involving special interests."

Perhaps the district should consider a guide on gay clubs that was prepared by the National School Board Association, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers -- and was recently distributed to every school board and high school principal in the country. There are currently nearly 3,000 student Gay-Straight Alliance clubs across the country -- including 65 in Colorado. Joshua Lamont, a spokesman for the national Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), pointed out that courts across the country have ruled in favor of such clubs.

Quite frankly [District 11] could save a lot in legal fees if they read that document," Lamont said.

It might be too late for that.

--degette@csindy.com

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