March 11, 2010— -- A Mississippi high school senior has filed suit to get the school's prom reinstated after officials canceled it because the young woman, an open lesbian, asked to attend with her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo.
The lawsuit, filed today in U.S. District Court, charges that 18-year-old Constance McMillen's free speech rights were violated when school officials told her they would be enforcing the district's policy that prom dates must be of "opposite sex."
McMillen is dating a sophomore girl at the school. She requested permission from the school's principal and the superintendent not only to bring her girlfriend, but to wear a tuxedo.
She was told, according to the lawsuit, that the pair would have to arrive separately and could be thrown out "if any of the other students complained about their presence there together." McMillen was also told she could not wear a tuxedo, according to the suit, because boys are to attend in tuxedos and girls in dresses.
On Wednesday, after the American Civil Liberties Union told the school board that banning same-sex dates violated the students' rights, the district canceled the April 2 prom for the entire school.
"Constance is just a courageous person. Certainly it's not easy for her," said Christine Sun, senior counsel for the ACLU's LGBT Project. "The school has put her in an extremely difficult position, unfairly."
In a statement issued today by the Itawamba County Board of Education, school officials said the prom was canceled after consideration for the "education, safety and well-being" of the students and that they hoped "private citizens" would take it upon themselves to throw the students a prom.
McMillen was not named in the statement, but the statement said the decision to cancel the prom was "due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events."
The lawsuit -- which also names Principal Trae Wiygul, Assistanct Principal Rick Mitchell and Superintendent Theresa McNeece -- requests not only that the prom be reinstated and the opposite-sex date policy be lifted, but that female students be allowed to wear tuxedos and that the school district admit its policies restricted its students' freedom of expression.
"We certainly want a declaration that what the school district did was unconstitutional," Sun said, adding that the ACLU is planning to file an emergency motion to get the matter resolved in time for the prom to be reinstated.
McMillen Made to Feel Uncomfortable at School After Prom Canceled
Though some students have expressed support for McMillen, others have made it uncomfortable for her at school. One student, she told The Associated Press, told her, "Thanks for ruining my senior year."
Junior Anna Watson, 17, told The Associated Press that she as looking forward to the prom, since the town's only hot spot is the bowling alley.
"I am a little bummed out about it. I guess it's a decision that had to be made. Either way someone was going to get disappointed -- either Constance was or we were," Watson said. "I don't agree with homosexuality, but I can't change what another person thinks or does."
Gay and lesbian rights in prom season have become a familiar fight for ALCU chapters all over the country. In the fall, the ACLU helped Alabama teenager Cynthia Stewart win permission to attend prom with her girlfriend after the school announced it would cancel the dance for everyone.
Sun said they get about five to 10 such complaints each year.
"It's really that it's becoming more and more of an issue because ... there's a lot more information out there for students so they know it's their right to be treated equally," she said. "Whereas before they thought, 'Well prom isn't for me because I'm gay.'"
The Associated Press contributed to this story.