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Lawsuit Against Schools Dropped

Arlington Public Schools comes to terms with a group that advocates for former homosexuals.

A group that seeks to support former homosexuals dropped its lawsuit against Arlington Public Schools last week after the School Board changed its policy on distributing materials to students.

The group, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays or PFOX, sought to have local Arlington high schools hand out its fliers to students in their classes. Arlington Public Schools denied this request, saying that its common practice was not to pass out fliers to high school students because they often wound up littering school grounds.

PFOX said that they were being discriminated against because Arlington Public Schools’ official policy stated that any non-profit group could have its fliers passed out to students in class for a nominal fee.

"The law is clear… [that all] groups must be treated equally," said Tim Tracey, an attorney with the Center for Law and Religious Freedom who represented PFOX in the case.

As a result of the settlement, school policy was officially changed to state that no high schools would pass out any outside group’s fliers to their students under any circumstances. But the settlement left open the possibility for PFOX to have its fliers distributed in middle and elementary schools.

PFOX is an advocacy group based out of Alexandria that, according to its Web site, provides "outreach, education and public awareness in support of the ex-gay community and families touched by homosexuality."

The Web site goes on to state that "Ex-gays are living proof that homosexual orientation is not fixed permanently. People can and do make the decision every day to seek help in overcoming unwanted same-sex attractions."

The group wanted to have its materials passed out to Arlington high school students because, according to its executive director Regina Griggs, PFOX had received reports that the schools were referring students to "gay resources," and wanted to "provide some alternative information for kids who are struggling with sexual identity."

Arlington Public Schools spokesperson Linda Erdos said that high schools had stopped distributing fliers years ago because "[The] kids don’t take [them] home and we had fliers all over the high schools."

However, because refusing to distribute fliers to high school students had been an unofficial rule, PFOX sued the school system claiming that their denial of its requests amounted to a violation of its free speech and equal protection rights.

The School Board, at its July 12 meeting, officially altered its policy to state that high schools will not distribute the fliers of outside groups and PFOX dropped its lawsuit less than a month later.

"No community groups are getting to distribute fliers to high schools," Tracey said. "[Arlington Public Schools is] giving PFOX equal treatment at this point."

However, school policy still allows outside groups to have their fliers distributed to middle and elementary school students.

Griggs said that PFOX will consider having their flyers passed out to 8th graders or any other students who "would normally be in a sex ed curriculum." But she ruled out the possibility that her group would request that its flyers be given out to younger students.

THE LAWSUIT, which was filed in federal court in early May, hinged on a dispute between PFOX and Erdos that, because the case was dropped, may never be resolved.

According to PFOX’s initial complaint, Erdos, who is in charge of community relations for Arlington Public Schools, was contacted no fewer than seven times since the beginning of 2007 to request that PFOX’s fliers be distributed in high schools.

Tracey said that his clients’ lawsuit was filed as a last resort because Arlington Public Schools did not respond to its repeated requests for its fliers to be distributed.

"We went above and beyond in our requests," he said. "They were clearly receiving our messages and they failed to respond."

However, Erdos, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, denied that this was the case. She said that she responded to PFOX via a voicemail message in which she denied its request to have its fliers passed out.

"We don’t reply in writing to every request. People contact us and I’ll say yes or no," Erdos said, adding that she receives approximately 200 similar requests per year.

Erdos also said she did not recall when the voicemail message was left.

Griggs denied that Arlington Public Schools had attempted to contact PFOX at any time prior to the lawsuit being filed.

"I've never spoken to [Erdos]," she said. "One would think you would leave more than one voicemail message."

The first evidence of any written reply from Arlington Public Schools to PFOX is dated May 4, three days after the complaint was filed in court.

Even though the case was in the courts very briefly, Arlington Public Schools still incurred $13,542 in legal fees, according to Erdos. The lawsuit did not cost PFOX any money, however, because the Center for Law and Religious Freedom represented them on a pro bono basis.