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Alabama Politicians Pressure State University Over Gay Group

March 21, 1992

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) _ A homosexual student group is fighting for a place on campus at Auburn University amid student protests and opposition from the highest levels of government in this Bible Belt state.

″Everyone said our generation was apathetic but for once we are trying to make a change,″ group member Jason Sanford said. ″We’re hoping we can push this university into the 21st century.″

The battle turned violent in January, when a student fired a pellet rifle at five members of the Auburn Gay and Lesbian Association who were putting up posters on campus. No one was hurt.

Auburn’s trustees, with the exception of Gov. Guy Hunt, have quietly supported the school administration’s decision to grant official recognition to the group.

The trustees are scheduled to meet Monday. The group’s status isn’t on the agenda, though some opponents hope to raise it.

The gay group has drawn fire from Hunt, the Alabama Legislature and Alabama Attorney General Jimmy Evans.

Evans issued an advisory opinion Thursday saying it is illegal for the group to use state buildings or funds under Alabama’s anti-sodomy and sexual misconduct laws.

But the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue if the university administration buckles under the pressure.

″It seems to be outrageous politics on the part of someone sworn to uphold the law,″ William Rubenstein, director of the ACLU’s National Lesbian and Gay Rights Program in New York, said of Evans’ opinion.

Rubenstein noted that the ACLU won a similar lawsuit last year against Clemson University in South Carolina.

In at least six cases, he said, federal courts have upheld the First Amendment rights of homosexual students to use university buildings for meetings.

The uproar began when the Auburn Student Government Association, at the urging of its president, Jon Waggoner, denied a charter to the group in November.

The Auburn administration overruled the decision Jan. 7, allowing the group to meet in university buildings. As many as 75 people attend the meetings.

Student leaders quickly launched a campaign to undo the administration’s decision, including getting 12,000 names on petitions.

″Auburn is one of the most conservative schools in the Southeast and I’m out to see it stay that way 100 percent,″ said senior Matt Boles.

Opponents won the support of the staunchly Democratic Legislature and the Republican governor. Hunt is a minister in the Primitive Baptist church, a strictly fundamentalist branch of the religion.

″You don’t tell an individual how to live as an individual, but you’ve got other things, such as state support, taxpayer support, that sort of thing,″ Hunt said. ″That’s at issue here.″

Five members of the group were fired upon Jan. 28 while putting up posters on campus, but weren’t hit. An 18-year-old student pleaded guilty to firing a pellet rifle in the city limits and paid a $99 fine.

To protest the shooting, 400 people rallied on the Auburn campus Feb. 8.

James T. Sears, a professor at the University of South Carolina and the author of ″Growing Up Gay in the South,″ said reaction to the group was predictable.

″In a year of politics where voters are dissatisfied for a variety of reasons, those groups that are the most vulnerable and on the cultural fringe are those most often targeted,″ he said.

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