Judge bars enforcement of school guidelines
In a move that could put increased attention on the U.S. Supreme Court, a federal judge Sunday issued a temporary order blocking the Obama administration from taking any action against states that refuse to comply with its guidelines concerning treatment of transgender students in federally funded schools.
The August 21 order, from Judge Reed O’Connor (an appointee of President George W. Bush), enables at least 23 states that have expressed opposition to Obama administration guidelines issued in May to ignore those guidelines until the court can rule on the merits of lawsuits challenging them.
The guidelines, from the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice, state that discrimination against transgender students violates federal law against sex discrimination and that schools failing to comply with the laws could lose their federal funding.
A White House spokesman reiterated Monday the administration’s contention that the guidelines were “certainly not a mandate” and characterized the lawsuit as an election year attempt to “play politics” with issues involving transgender students.
“[O] ur goal has been from the beginning to provide for the safety and security and dignity of students all across the country,” said John Earnest, press secretary for President Obama.
Lambda Legal and four other national legal groups working on LGBT issues expressed disappointment in Judge O’Connor’s injunction. They said it is likely to confuse school districts trying to help transgender students and goes against “years of clear legal precedent nationwide establishing that transgender students have the right to go to school without being singled out for discrimination.”
The groups said the injunction would have “no effect on the ability of other courts or lawyers representing transgender people to continue to rely on the federal government’s interpretations of Title IX or on prior decisions that have reached similar conclusions about the scope of federal sex discrimination laws.”
Big enough conflict?
But the injunction could have an effect on whether the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to take up the issue sooner rather than later. Judge O’Connor’s decision in this preliminary matter contradicts a ruling of another federal court. And conflicts among federal courts make issues more likely to attract Supreme Court intervention.
The Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 –which prohibits discrimination based on sex by federally funded educational institutions—prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.
Judge O’Connor for the U.S. District Court of Northern Texas said “the plain meaning of the term sex” does not include gender identity. Noting that the Supreme Court had granted a stay against the Fourth Circuit decision, O’Connor said a decision from the Supreme Court “may obviate the issues in this lawsuit.”
Judge O’Connor’s decision makes clear he thinks states opposing the Obama administration guidelines have a strong case. He said “the plain meaning of the term sex” in Title IX “meant the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth.” The guidelines, therefore, are “contrary to law.” In the preliminary ruling, he said the guidelines pose a sufficient level of threat to the statutes and constitutions of plaintiff states to demonstrate “a threat of irreparable harm” that warrants a temporary injunction.
Starting in 2010, Obama administration agencies began interpreting federal laws barring discrimination on the basis of “sex” to include “gender identity.” That meant laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex provided some protection for people whose gender identity is different from that stated on their birth certificate. In May, the departments of Education and Justice distributed a letter with “guidelines,” saying discrimination against such transgender students violates federal laws and that schools failing to comply with the laws could lose their federal funding. The letter, said O’Connor, “provides not only must [states] permit individuals to use the [school restrooms and facilities] consistent with their gender identity,” but stipulates that alternative accommodations are unacceptable.
Thirteen states filed the lawsuit, Texas v. U.S., to argue that Congress intended “sex” to refer “only to one’s biological sex, as male or female.” Those states include Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Ten other states (Arkansas, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming) filed a similar lawsuit in a federal court in Nebraska.
In granting the injunction, Judge O’Connor said the Obama administration’s guidelines are “clearly designed to target” plaintiff states with “legal consequences” if the states fail to follow the guidelines.
The Obama administration’s guidelines and actions, said O’Connor, “indicate that [states] jeopardize their federal education funding by choosing not to comply” with the guidelines. Thus, he said, those guidelines are both “legislative and substantive” and that the public should have been given an opportunity to comment on those guidelines.
“The information before the Court,” said O’Connor, “demonstrates [the Obama administration agencies] have ‘drawn a line in the sand’ in that they have concluded [states] must abide by the Guidelines, without exception, or they are in breach of their Title IX obligations.”
“Permitting the definition of sex to be defined [as the Obama administration has stated] would allow [the administration] to ‘create de facto new regulation’ by agency action without complying with the proper procedures.”
At issue are two federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on sex –Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which covers employment, and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which covers educational institutions.
A brief filed by five pro-LGBT legal groups argued that federal appeals courts governing many of the states opposing the Obama guidelines have already ruled that sex discrimination includes discrimination against transgender people.
The groups include Lambda Legal, the ACLU, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (formerly known as GLAD), and the Transgender Law Center.
Jon Davidson, national legal director for Lambda Legal, said he does not believe O’Connor’s ruling will increase the probability that the Supreme Court will accept the Fourth Circuit case. He said “a large number of issues” in the Texas v. U.S. case “go beyond what is at issue in the [Fourth Circuit] appeal, such as whether the states, state and local agencies, and state officials that brought the suit were sufficiently harmed” by the guidelines.
“Granting review in [the Fourth Circuit case, Gloucester v. Grimm] wouldn’t resolve all those issues,” said Davidson, “so I don’t think the preliminary injunction in Texas v. U.S. puts pressure on the Supreme Court to hear the Gloucester case.”
Shannon Minter, NCLR’s national legal director, said he thinks O’Connor’s injunction will likely be stayed.
Minter notes that, in discussing the “plain meaning” of “sex” in federal law, O’Connor “completely disregards Price Waterhouse. In that 1989 decision, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination because of “sex” include discrimination against an employee based on expectations for an employee’s appearance and behavior based on their biological sex. (Notably, Justice Anthony Kennedy dissented.)
“This is a political case brought to make a political point,” said Minter. “The states don’t have any actual injury. They are just expressing their disagreement with the Department’s view of the law, but that abstract disagreement is not a valid basis for a federal lawsuit. This is political posturing at the expense of a small group of vulnerable children.”
The Texas Tribune noted that Judge O’Connor issued a temporary injunction in March of last year to block enforcement of an Obama administration interpretation of the Family and Medical Leave Act that required states to provide to same-sex married couples the same benefits it provides to opposite-sex married couples. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton withdrew that lawsuit after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June of last year that state bans on marriage licenses for same-sex couples was unconstitutional.