July/August 2018 Church & State Magazine - July/August 2018

Federal Courts In Pennsylvania And Virginia Affirm Civil Rights Of Transgender Students

  Liz Hayes

Federal courts in late May delivered opinions affirming the rights and dignity of transgender students in two cases in which Americans United had filed friend-of-the-court briefs.

A federal court on May 22 ruled that a Virginia high school had violated the civil rights of transgender teenager Gavin Grimm by refusing to let him use boys’ restrooms in accordance with his gender identity. It was a bittersweet win for Grimm, now 19, as it came a year after he had graduated from Gloucester High School.

“I came to understand a very long time ago that this was not going to affect me in a way that positively impacted my ability to function in school. … The issue is for all the kids out there who were waiting for something like this,” said Grimm, who told The Washington Post that being forced to use a separate, unisex bathroom at Gloucester contributed to his feelings of alienation in high school. “The tears were because there was a vindication of what I’ve been saying for four years.”

Two days later, a federal appeals court affirmed a Pennsylvania school district’s right to implement a policy that allows transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that are consistent with their gender identity.

Americans United filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both cases explaining that religious or moral beliefs cannot dictate how government enforces the law, especially when those beliefs would result in harm to others.

Not only did the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rule in favor of Boyertown Area School District’s policy, but the court issued a rare decision from the bench less than an hour after oral argument had ended. Judge Theodore McKee said he and the other two judges on the panel ruled so quickly because they knew it was an important issue for Boyertown students, many of whom would be graduating within a few days.

The lawsuit against Boyertown, Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, was brought by the Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of four students and a few of their parents who want to segregate transgender students from their peers. ADF alleged the student plaintiffs’ privacy was violated by allowing transgender students to use the same facilities as them.

Not only did the judges find that ADF’s clients had not proven their privacy was violated by Boyertown’s policy, but McKee pushed back against the ADF-allied attorney’s request for a “return to the status quo.”

“You could have come in here during Brown v. Board of Education and said, ‘Let’s go back to the status quo,’” said McKee, who is African-American. He was referencing the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down racial segregation in public schools. “These types of cases wouldn’t happen if the answer was always, ‘Go back to the status quo.’

“The high school obviously thought there were some real problems that needed addressing,” McKee added.

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Boyertown and two briefs in support of Grimm, including with the U.S. Supreme Court, explaining that religious or moral beliefs cannot dictate how government enforces the law, especially when those beliefs would result in harm to others.

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