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Federal appeals court sides with transgender teen in bathroom case

This could be big.

A federal appeals court in Richmond has sided with a transgender high school student, saying that he can proceed with his lawsuit arguing that his school board’s decision to ban him from the boys’ bathroom is discriminatory.

In backing high school junior Gavin Grimm, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit deferred to the U.S. Education Department’s interpretation of policies that give transgender students access to the bathrooms that match their gender identities rather than their biological sex. The federal department has said that denying transgender students access to the school bathrooms of their choice is a violation of Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

“It’s a complete vindication for the education department’s interpretation of Title IX,” said Joshua Block, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents Grimm.

In a 2-to-1 decision, the 4th Circuit reversed a lower court ruling, saying that court had used the wrong legal standard in denying the student a preliminary injunction that would have allowed him to use the boys’ bathroom at his high school in Gloucester County, Va. Judge Henry Floyd, who wrote the majority opinion, also ruled that the boy’s discrimination lawsuit could move forward. The appeals court remanded the case to the lower court to be reheard.

The 4th Circuit is the highest court to weigh in on the question of whether bathroom restrictions constitute sex discrimination, and the decision could have widespread implications on how the courts interpret the issue as civil rights activists and local politicians battle over school bathrooms.

“The Department’s interpretation resolves ambiguity by providing that in the case of a transgender individual using a sex-segregated facility, the individual’s sex as male or female is to be generally determined by reference to the student’s gender identity,” the court wrote.

[…]

The decision’s legal implications are far broader than just Grimm’s case, as it could shape other court battles, including one in North Carolina, where a transgender university student and employee already have sued to overturn the new law there. Other judges outside the 4th Circuit, which includes North Carolina, could look to the court’s ruling in future legal fights because it is the highest court so far to weigh in on the legality of bathroom restrictions for transgender students.

The Obama administration has taken the position that such restrictions for students are a violation of Title IX, and officials in Washington have warned school districts that they risk losing federal funding if they fail to accommodate transgender students. Following a civil rights complaint, the U.S. Education Department found that an Illinois school district violated Title IX when it barred a transgender girl from a girls’ locker room.

But lower-court rulings have gone against the Obama administration’s position, including in Grimm’s case, when a district judge ruled that Title IX protects students from discrimination based on biological sex, not gender identity.

There are a lot of caveats to this story, beginning with this:

Judge Floyd’s opinion does contain some language that could create trouble for trans equality in the future, especially if a new president who opposes LGBT rights is elected. Though the Obama administration reads the regulation at issue in this case in a way that promotes trans rights, the regulation itself, Floyd writes, “is silent as to how a school should determine whether a transgender individual is a male or female for the purpose of access to sex-segregated restrooms.” Thus, his opinion concludes that “the regulation is susceptible to more than one plausible reading because it permits both the Board’s reading— determining maleness or femaleness with reference exclusively to genitalia—and the Department’s interpretation—determining maleness or femaleness with reference to gender identity.”

For the time being, this conclusion that the regulation is ambiguous is good news for trans individuals seeking access to the appropriate restroom, because Supreme Court precedents also call on federal courts to defer to agencies in cases such as this one. As Floyd writes, the Supreme Court’s decision in Auer v. Robbins “requires that an agency’s interpretation of its own ambiguous regulation be given controlling weight unless the interpretation is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation or statute.” Nevertheless, a new administration could rewrite the underlying regulation, if it chose to, and Floyd’s opinion does little to prevent such a rewrite from relegating trans students to a bathroom that does not correspond with their gender identity.

So long as Barack Obama — or a similarly-minded president — sits in the White House, however, Judge Floyd’s reasoning will protect trans students who are impacted by discriminatory policies governing which bathroom they may use. Floyd’s opinion was joined by Judge Andre Davis, also an Obama appointee. Judge Paul Niemeyer, a Bush I appointee, dissented from the relevant parts of Floyd’s opinion.

It’s one appellate court, and this ruling – which sent the original lawsuit back to district court – only affects states in the Fourth Circuit. Other appeals courts may rule differently, and of course this will eventually end up before SCOTUS, where who knows what will happen. So the future and the timeline are both uncertain, but the direction is right. If it acts as a deterrent to even one city or state that contemplates a similar bathroom ordinance or law, so much the better. Daily Kos has more.

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One Comment

  1. Bill Shirley says:

    The Virginia story and the Texas photo confused me.