Adopt-a-highway dispute pits gay coalition against governor

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The Independent US

Across America, "adopting" a stretch of highway – agreeing to pay for basic maintenance and litter removal – is a useful way for private companies and non-profit groups to do their civic duty and get some positive publicity into the bargain. At least that's what the Sioux Empire Gay and Lesbian Coalition thought when it volunteered to adopt two miles of State Highway 38 west of Sioux Falls in South Dakota.

There was, however, a problem. Perhaps because rural South Dakota is about as conservative as the conservative American heartland gets, the group was told it was welcome to pay for the upkeep of the road but could not have the customary sign to acknowledge its contribution. According to the state Department of Transportation, a gay and lesbian organisation is an "advocacy group" and thus ineligible for display on public highways.

The coalition was not amused. This week, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, it filed suit in the Federal Court alleging violations of its right to free speech and equal protection. Its members argued: if nudists in Florida can adopt a highway, and Wiccans in New Jersey and even – in a notorious case – the Ku Klux Klan in Missouri, why not a gay and lesbian group in South Dakota?

Quite where the thin line between legitimate organisations and "advocacy groups" lies is also unclear. Among groups enjoying Adopt-A-Highway signs in South Dakota are the College Republicans, the Yankton County Democrats and the Animal Rights Advocates of South Dakota, partisans all.

The dispute, which has been brewing for several months, has turned into something of a personal stand-off between the coalition's president, Barbara Himmel-Roberts, and the Governor of South Dakota, Bill Janklow. Mr Janklow said that he would take a dim view of a lawsuit, and, since the coalition's papers were filed, he has warned he might just scrap the Adopt-A-Highway scheme altogether rather than give the coalition satisfaction. A decision is expected today.

The Governor, a Republican who has picked acrimonious fights with the state's Native American groups, is being heavily leaned on by the Family Policy Council – a conservative Christian group that sees gay Adopt-A-Highway signs as the first step on a slippery slope towards same-sex marriages and other liberal horrors.

Robert Regier, the council's executive director, said: "When liberals don't get their way, they conjure up some false notion of civil rights and sue until they get their way."

Such behaviour is not restricted to liberals, however. The overtly racist Ku Klux Klan fought the state of Missouri for years for the right to adopt a one-mile stretch of Highway 55 south of St Louis, and ended up winning its case in the Supreme Court in March.