Federal Appeals Court Rules on Transgender Student/School Bathroom Issue

A federal appeals court (4th Circuit Court of Appeals) handed a victory Tuesday to a transgender boy in his attempt to use the boys’ bathroom at a Virginia public school.  The 2-1 decision overturned a district court judge’s ruling last year denying relief to the student in Gloucester County, Va.

While the decision does not affect Wisconsin, which is under the jurisdiction of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, it is noteworthy because it is the first federal appeals court decision to come down on the issue.  Legislation was introduced but not passed this session in Wisconsin that would have dictated school district bathroom policies in regard to transgender students.

From the Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch:

In a case that may have national implications, the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday in favor of a transgender student fighting to use the boys bathroom at his Gloucester County school.

The three-judge panel issued its 2-1 ruling Tuesday overturning a district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction, saying the lower court judge was “guided by erroneous legal principles.”

The injunction would have allowed 16-year-old Gavin Grimm, who was born female but identifies as male, to use the boys restroom at Gloucester High School as his lawsuit against the county’s School Board worked its way through the court system.

The court also ruled that Grimm’s lawyers could reinstate a claim that the School Board’s bathroom policy violates federal sex discrimination law.

Unless the school system changes its policy, Grimm will not be allowed to use the boys bathroom at the school until the district court hears the case again.

The appeals court’s ruling establishes legal precedent in every state in the 4th Circuit, including North Carolina, which faces a lawsuit challenging a new state law requiring transgender people to use the public bathroom that corresponds to the sex listed on their birth certificate. The sweeping law, which also barred cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances like one recently passed in Charlotte, has prompted a national backlash.

Grimm’s case stems from the School Board’s 2014 policy that designates bathrooms to a student’s specific biological gender and allows for unisex bathrooms.

When the 2014-15 school year began, Grimm asked for permission to use the boys bathroom. The school’s principal agreed and, for seven weeks, Grimm used it without issue.

However, court records show that some community members disapproved and asked the School Board to prohibit him from using the boys bathroom.

The School Board approved the resolution 6-1 on Dec. 9, 2014. Grimm was told the next day “that he could no longer use the boys restroom and would be disciplined if he did,” according to court filings.

Grimm, working with the ACLU, filed a lawsuit against the School Board in June and asked for an injunction allowing him to use the boys bathroom.

At a hearing in July, U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar dismissed Grimm’s Title IX claim and denied his request for a preliminary injunction, according to court papers.

The judge eventually found that Grimm’s sex was female and that requiring him to use the girls bathroom “did not impermissibly discriminate against him on the basis of sex in violation of Title IX,” court papers say.

 

As for the injunction, the district court found that making Grimm use a single-stall unisex bathroom as the case worked its way through the court system “was not unduly burdensome and would result in less hardship than requiring other students made uncomfortable by (Grimm’s) presence in the boys’ restroom to themselves use the unisex restrooms.”

Lawyers for the ACLU appealed and asked the three-judge panel in January to overturn the district court’s denial of the preliminary injunction. It also asked the court to reinstate a claim that the School Board’s bathroom policy violates federal sex discrimination law.

The ACLU argued that forcing Grimm to use the girls bathroom is a violation of Title IX and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“We agree that it has indeed been commonplace and widely accepted to separate public restrooms, locker rooms, and shower facilities on the basis of sex,” the judges wrote in Tuesday’s ruling. “It is not apparent to us, however, that the truth of these propositions undermines the conclusion we reach regarding the level of deference due to the (education) department’s interpretation of its own regulations.”

But Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, who dissented, wrote that the ruling “completely tramples on all universally accepted protections of privacy and safety that are based on the anatomical differences between the sexes.”

“And, unwittingly, it also tramples on the very concerns expressed by (Grimm), who said that he should not be forced to go to the girls’ restrooms because of the ‘severe psychological distress’ it would inflict on him and because female students had ‘reacted negatively’ to his presence in girls’ restrooms,” he wrote.

According to the ACLU, which represented Grimm, Tuesday’s ruling “marks the first time that a federal appeals court has determined that Title IX protects the rights of transgender students to use sex segregated facilities that are consistent with their gender identity.”

The School Board for Gloucester, on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, can either request a hearing before the full judicial panel or appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.