Appeals court backs transgender teen in Virginia bathroom case
RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals court in Richmond has ruled that a transgender high school student who was born as a female can sue his school board on discrimination grounds because it banned him from the boys' bathroom.
In backing high school junior Gavin Grimm, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit deferred to the Education Department's position that transgender students should have access to the bathrooms that match their gender identities rather than being forced to use bathrooms that match their biological sex. The department has said that requiring transgender students to use a bathroom that corresponds with their biological sex amounts to a violation of Title IX, which prohibits sex 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 American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represents Grimm.
In a 2-to-1 decision, the 4th Circuit ordered a lower court to rehear the student's claims that the Gloucester County, Virginia, school board's bathroom policies — which restrict transgender students to using a separate unisex bathroom — violate federal law. The judges also ruled that the lower court should reconsider a request that would have allowed Grimm to use the boys' bathroom at Gloucester High School while the case is pending.
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 courts interpret the issue as civil rights activists and local politicians battle over bathrooms.
The question of which bathrooms transgender people can use has become a divisive political issue in several states, emerging as an emotional fight in South Dakota, Texas, Illinois, Mississippi and Virginia. In North Carolina, a law banning local protections for gay and transgender people — a measure centering on bathrooms — has sparked protests, boycotts and calls for an immediate repeal.
Public bathrooms have become the latest battleground in the fight for LGBT rights, with conservative activists and some state lawmakers pushing restrictions that prevent transgender people from using bathrooms in accordance with their gender identity. Activists have used the bathroom debate as a venue for rolling back broader civil rights protections, arguing that allowing transgender people into the supposedly safe spaces of single-sex bathrooms creates dangerous scenarios and violates privacy and common sense.
The 4th Circuit judges wrote that interpretations of federal discrimination policies should be left to politicians, in this case the Obama administration's Education Department. The court ruled that Grimm has an argument that his school board violated his rights based on those interpretations, but the court did not decide whether transgender students faced discrimination in Gloucester, leaving that question to the lower court.
“At the heart of this appeal is whether Title IX requires schools to provide transgender students access to restrooms congruent with their gender identity,” the court's opinion said. “We conclude that the Department's interpretation of its own regulation ... as it relates to restroom access by transgender individuals, is ... to be accorded controlling weight in this case.”