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Court backs lesbian student in prom dispute

A US school district violated a lesbian student's rights by banning her from bringing her girlfriend to the prom, a federal judge ruled, but he stopped short of forcing the district to hold the event.

US District Judge Glen H. Davidson refused the American Civil Liberties Union's demand to force the Itawamba County school district to put on the April 2 prom.

However, he said cancelling it did violate 18-year-old Constance McMillen's rights and that he would hold a trial on the issue.

That would come too late for the prom to be salvaged at Itawamba Agricultural High School. Still, Kristy Bennett, ACLU Mississippi legal director, called the decision a victory.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the district to force it to put on the prom and allow Ms McMillen to bring her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo. School officials said in US District Court this week that they decided to cancel it because Ms McMillen's challenge to the rules had caused disruptions.

The judge noted that Ms McMillen has been openly gay since she was in the eighth grade and that she intended to communicate a message by wearing a tuxedo and escorting a same-sex date.

"The court finds this expression and communication falls squarely within the purview of the First Amendment," Mr Davidson said.

As for Ms McMillen, she said she was happy about the ruling but doesn't know what to expect when she returns to school. She attended classes a day after the March 10 decision to cancel the prom.

But she said the hostility and comments from other students led her to miss school. She skipped class yesterday to go to the doctor and the fight is taking a toll, she said.

"My nerves are shot," she said.

District officials said in a statement that they were ready to get back to educating students.

Mr Davidson said a private prom parents are planning will serve the same purpose as a school-sponsored one. He wrote that "requiring defendants to step back into a sponsorship role at this late date would only confuse and confound the community on the issue".

Ms McMillen isn't sure if she'll go to the dance.

"I'm going to school tomorrow (Wednesday) and will get a feel of how everybody feels about me. That will help me make my decision about whether I'm going to the private prom," Ms McMillen said. "I want to go because all my junior and senior class will be there, but I don't want to be somewhere I'm not welcomed."

Ben Griffith, the school district's attorney, said his clients were pleased with the ruling.

"What we're looking at now is the fact that the case is still on the docket for a trial on the merits," Mr Griffith said.