Editor’s Note: Americans United recently concluded its annual essay contest for high school students. Nearly 500 entries were received. The winner this year is Lekha Sunder, who will be a senior this fall at Lamar High School in Houston. Sunder received a scholarship prize of $1,500.

Ethan Cantrell, a recent graduate of Wheeling Park High School in Wheeling, W. Va., won second place. He plans to major in anthropology at West Vir­ginia University this fall. He was awarded $1000.

The third-place winner was Autumn Jenkins, who graduated from the Maryvale Preparatory School in Lutherville, Md., last month. She plans to attend the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the fall, majoring in either international relations or international business. She received $500 Some print copies of Church & State incorrectly switched our 2nd and 3rd place winners.

Church & State is pleased to print Sunder’s winning essay. Thanks to all who entered.

By Lekha Sunder  

A group of citizens in North Carolina believed former governor Pat McCrory was so concerned with transgender individuals using the bathroom of their identity that, in his free time, he swam in the local sewers to make sure boys’ and girls’ waste were separate. (Editor’s Note: The story that reported this was from a parody site.)

And while there is still debate over what McCrory does in his down time, what he did while in office is well understood. The passage of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, or the “bathroom bill,” was the first official bill to preempt county and municipal anti-discrimination laws. Moreover, 16 states are currently considering legislation to limit access to bathrooms based on biological sex.

The surge of state ordinances that stifle LGBTQ rights is disquieting, primarily because their focal point is schools, a place where students de­serve to feel included. And while at first glance, the legal battles in sup­port of these bills seem rooted in innocent concepts such as privacy and security, supporters also allude to religious values, a clear infringe­ment on the separation of church and state.

These ordinances intend to halt the momentum of growing equality in the country and are a blockade to civil rights. No court case concerns these rights more than Gloucester County School Board v. Gavin Grimm, which was set to resolve the issue once and for all. Through Grimm’s story, we can analyze how religion is being used to inhibit transgender rights in schools, how this affects the transgender community and what students can do to fight back.

In February, Gavin Grimm was getting a suit tailored in preparation for his case before the Supreme Court. Just one month later, the Sup­reme Court decided it wasn’t going to hear the case. Grimm, a transgender high-school student from Virginia, filed a lawsuit against his school board after it barred kids with “gender identity issues” from rest­rooms that matched their gender. The case made its way to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Ap­peals, where the court of appeals ruled that Grimm had a right to the males’ restroom. The school board appealed to the Supreme Court.

However, on March 6, 2017, the Sup­reme Court announced that it was sending the case back down, after Trump rescinded Obama’s transgender guidance. Obama’s guidance declared that Title IX protections extend to transgender students and, more significantly, that any public schools that deny protections to LGBTQ students will have their funding removed. The Supreme Court sent the case back down because it believed the lower court made the decision based on the now-defunct Obama guidance and not on the legality under Title IX.

And although Grimm’s case is stalled, there’s still much to be said about how inextricably linked it is to religion. In fact, amicus curiae briefs were filed against Grimm in January from a slew of religious colleges, organizations, and educational groups. The briefs wrote that “Major religions teach that personal identity as male or female is a divinely created and immutable characteristic” and that “The religious liberty we cherish is threatened by the Fourth Circuit’s decision.”

These testimonies show the case is not solely about privacy but something deeper – something religious. Religion permeated the school board as well. Ralph VanNess, a security guard at Grimm’s school, demanded the board stop allowing Grimm to use the males’ restroom, citing “a responsibility he had before God.” Lower and higher courts are listening to religious arguments and have the potential to use them as a means to deny trans students’ rights. This sends a powerful message: religious values trump individual rights.

But not only was the court listening to religious advocacy groups, the school district was as well. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian non-profit, pushed for a policy where transgender students would have to use a single-person restroom if they didn’t use the bathroom of their biological sex.

Gloucester County adopted this policy, forcing Grimm to use a special single-stall restroom in the school nurse’s office. The ramifications were horrendous. Grimm felt humiliation every time he had to use the restroom and tried to “hold it” to avoid the long walk to the nurse’s office. Adults called him “a freak” and compared him to a dog. Even his peers used religion to ostracize him. John Groen, a sophomore, said, “I don’t think it’s right. I just believe if you’re a man, you’re a man. That’s how God made you.”

While Grimm was being discrim­inated against, many supporters of Gloucester County claimed that Title IX doesn’t protect transgender stu­dents because the act bars dis­­crim­i­nation on the basis of sex, not gender. Opponents of the county argue that because transgender students’ gender differs from their sex, barring them from facilities is sex discrimination and therefore violates Title IX. By ham­mering on semantics, the conversation strays away from how Gavin and other trans students feel.

Transgender students are especially prone to feelings of isolation. The idea of creating a singular, make­shift restroom reaffirms the notion that Gavin doesn’t deserve equality and doesn’t fit into the norm. ADF thought its “innocuous” policy recommendation would appease transgender students, but it was mistaken. As publicly funded schools are implementing policy suggestions from religious organizations, transgender students are suffering and the gap between church and state is closing.

As courts and schools increasingly follow the voice of religious groups, what can be done to raise our voice? Participating in town halls, school board meetings and local elections are all ways to minimize religious influence and protect transgender lives.

The primary reason Pat McCrory was voted out (and Roy Cooper was voted in) was because HB2 incited voters in North Carolina. Transgender students are uniquely susceptible to being denied voter registration due to “inconsistencies in their appearance.” Giving transgender students, and high schoolers in general, the access to voter registration is a necessary linchpin to maximizing their voice.

In September, I organized a pres­idential debate watch party that included voter registration for over 500 students in Houston, many of whom were members of the LGBTQ community. The idea was to gal­vanize students into acting by showing them what the issues are and then giving them an outlet to speak out. This needs to be employed in schools across the country as current methods of voter registration involve lifelessly offering cards to students. Gavin Grimm chose the legal system to fight for his rights, but on a daily basis we can use our voice. People cite their freedom of religion as an excuse to impose these policies. We can use our freedom of speech to fight back.

While at first glance, Gloucester County’s grievances seem to be related to safety and privacy more than rel­igion, after analyzing the intricacies of the case, we see that religion plays an integral role. When religious expres­sion threatens the learning environ- ­ment, influences public policy and sways court decis­ions, it’s an un­war­ranted breach. And while Gavin’s case may not be setting a national pre­ce­dent just yet, we can influence nat­­­ional policy today. By speaking out at rallies and meetings and voting out politicians that are too concerned with our bathroom busi­ness, we can in­crease the divide between church and state and de­crease the divide between the LGBTQ community and the rest of the country.                                    

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

Act Now