When well-intentioned laws have unintended consequences, lawmakers should carve out exceptions. That’s what should happen in Rhode Island, where a school superintendent’s decision to cancel a father-daughter dance because of bans on gender discrimination has become a political issue.
Sean Gately, a Republican state Senate candidate, is campaigning against a decision by the superintendent in Cranston to eliminate gender-specific events like father-daughter dances and mother-son baseball outings. The episode began last spring, when the mother of a student complained that her daughter did not have a father to bring to a father-daughter dance. School officials appropriately encouraged the student to bring any adult as her date. The mother, however, decided to involve lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, who claimed the school was breaking federal and state laws by holding gender-specific events. The school system’s legal counsel agreed.
Not every specialist shares this interpretation: Federal law allows for some gender-specific events, as long as “comparable” activities are offered to both male and female students. Rhode Island’s laws are more vague. State legislators would be wise to clear up the confusion, and add an exemption to allow the school events. Father-daughter dances and mother-son baseball outings are wholesome vehicles for parental involvement in schools. And if parents or students of the other gender care to join in, they should be welcomed without a fuss.
There are many appropriate — and less drastic — ways to be sensitive to the principle of non-discrimination, and the concerns of individual parents and students, without canceling the events for everyone.