Controversial 'alternative lifestyle instruction' policy repealed

NEW HAMPSHIRE — Parents, teachers and gay and lesbian rights advocates have declared victory in the community of Merrimack, after a new school board repealed a controversial “alternative lifestyle instruction” policy.

In May, a new Merrimack school board was elected and repealed the controversial policy, adopting instead a new, less specific one. While the old policy targeted the discussion of homosexuality specifically and prohibited only the “encouraging or supporting of homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative,” the new policy is more neutral. It prohibits the promotion of any sexual activity or any sexual orientation in general.

The old policy, also known as 6540 or “Prohibition of Alternative Lifestyle Instruction,” was adopted in August of 1995, amid protest from many teachers, students and parents in the community.

Policy 6540 prompted the removal of both a video about Walt Whitman and the discussion of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night from English classes. In addition, the principal censored two letters to the editor in the Merrimack High School student newspaper that criticized the policy. The principal decided that the letters were in violation of 6540 and refused to let them run.

A group of parents and teachers filed suit against the school board in federal court, charging that 6540 violated the First and 14th Amendments. They decided to drop their case after the new school board dropped the policy.

Mary Bonauto, an attorney with Gay and Lesbian Advocates (GLAD), said of the election, “the citizens took their town back basically.” She said the new policy won by a 2-to-1 margin and that many people in the community who had never voted in a school board election before, voted in the most recent one.

In a press release about the case’s dismissal, Ruth F. Harlow of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the group of plaintiffs have reserved their right to reinstate their suit again if further censorship occurs, but added, “…we have every confidence that the newly-elected board will see to it that the First Amendment is not again sacrificed in Merrimack.”

Both the New Hampshire and national ACLU offices represented the plaintiffs, in addition to GLAD and People For the American Way.