A federal appeals court has reversed a lower court decision and reinstated a lawsuit accusing a Virginia school district of violating the rights of a transgender high school student by forbidding him from using the boys' bathroom.
In a 2-to-1 ruling, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling that upheld Gloucester County School District's bathroom policy. The suit contended that the district's policy violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools.
The case involves Gavin Grimm, a junior at Gloucester High School, whose biological sex is female, but who identifies as male. The school at first allowed him to use the boys' bathroom in 2014, but after some in the community complained to the school board, the board adopted a policy that denied Gavin use of boys' bathrooms. Gavin sued the district last year, and a district court judge rejected the student's sex discrimination claim in September and dismissed the suit.
In reversing the dismissal, the Appeals Court ruled that the lower court judge ignored a U.S. Department of Education guidance that stated transgender students should be allowed to use bathrooms of the gender with which they identify.
"We conclude the district court did not accord appropriate deference to the relevant Department of Education regulations," Judge Henry Floyd wrote. "...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."
The education department's Office for Civil Rights has interpreted the department's regulations this way: “When a school elects to separate or treat students differently on the basis of sex . . . a school generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity.”
The ACLU of Virginia, which filed the lawsuit on Gavin's behalf, says the court decision marks the first time 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 identities.
"The court's ruling sends a strong message to schools and lawmakers that discriminatory restroom policies don't just harm transgender students, they put Title IX funding at risk," says Gail Deady, the Secular Society Women's Rights Fellow at the ACLU of Virginia.
The Transgender Law Center, which had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, also praised the ruling.
"Today’s ruling sets a legal precedent confirming what the federal government has made clear again and again: Schools cannot ban students from using the restroom that matches the gender they live as every day,” says Transgender Law Center Executive Director Kris Hayashi.