A panel of senators will get its first look at a bill gay rights activists are calling discriminatory.
Today, members of the Senate's Education Subcommittee will review House bill 3543, which, if passed, would require school districts to create dating violence prevention policies. Schools would be required to share the policies on their Web sites or in student handbooks with students in sixth through 12th grade and their parents.
At issue is an amendment to the bill, added on the House floor last year by Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, that defined a dating partner as "a person involved in a heterosexual dating relationship with another."
Gay rights advocates are calling foul.
"We're talking about educating students about the danger of dating violence, but we're saying to gay and lesbian students, 'You're not a part of this,'" said Warren Redman-Gress, director of the Alliance for Full Acceptance in Charleston. "It excludes gays and lesbian students from protection."
Gress' organization and other gay rights groups have pulled together to fight the bill and are encouraging supporters to contact lawmakers.
Delleney has said it's inappropriate for school districts to discuss same-sex relationships with children.
The bill's author, Rep. Joan Brady, R-Richland, said her intent is to raise awareness and protect young people from violence that can occur in dating situations. Brady points to a new state Department of Education survey that shows, in 2009, one in six S.C. high school students reported being hit or physically hurt by their boyfriend or girlfriend. That's up from one in eight in the 1999 survey.
"This is a growing problem in South Carolina, and we need to address it," said Brady, whose original bill did not specify whether couples were heterosexual or homosexual.
Brady said she was upset last year when Delleney amended her bill to only reference heterosexual couples.
"Definitely, the bill was hijacked," Brady said of Delleney's amendment. "But the protection it's going to be able to provide and the awareness it will bring to the problem (of teen dating violence) overrides these other concerns."
Brady said her bill, in its amended form, is in compliance with current state statute that defines a couple as a man and women in criminal domestic violence situations.
"I don't believe my piece of legislation is the appropriate vehicle for those who want to change definitions already in use in state statue," she said.
"That's like saying two wrongs make a right. If other legislation doesn't address it, does that mean we should introduce another piece of legislation that also doesn't address gay and lesbian students?"
Brady said she expects her bill to pass the subcommittee and move on to the full Senate.