The Legal Brief: The U.S. Supreme Court Declines School Board’s Appeal in Transgender Bathroom Rights Case

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a Virginia school board’s appeal to bring back its transgender bathroom ban, leaving in place the lower court’s ruling that the school board had acted unlawfully in preventing Gavin Grimm from using the boys’ bathroom.

In 2015, then-high school student Grimm, who is transgender (female to male), sued his school after they banned him from using the boys’ bathroom. The school board said he could instead use a private bathroom or the girls’ bathroom. Grimm said the restriction “severely interfered” with his education, and that he felt humiliated. Lower courts agreed that the bathroom ban violated Title IX, which prohibits schools from discriminating “on the basis of sex.” Now, the Supreme Court’s decision to not hear the case means the lower court’s ruling is upheld – giving Grimm a win.

What this means for School Districts:  The U.S. Supreme court opted not to take up a major transgender rights case that could have set a nationwide precedent on the issue.  Last year, the Supreme Court for the first time ruled in favor of transgender rights, saying  a federal employment discrimination law applied to L.G.B.T.Q. workers. But Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, writing for the majority, said the ruling did not address access to restrooms. “We do not purport to address bathrooms, locker rooms or anything else of the kind,” he wrote.

U.S. lower courts, however, are consistently ruling that Title IX, which bars discrimination in education, and that the U.S. Constitution’s requirement that people be treated equally under the law, both protect transgender student’s rights to access public schools based on their identity.  

On June 16, the U.S. Department of Education published a Notice of Interpretation explaining that it will enforce Title IX’s prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex to include: (1) discrimination based on sexual orientation; and (2) discrimination based on gender identity.  This is likely to result in the Office of Civil Rights ruling in favor of transgender rights, which includes use of bathrooms and locker rooms.

In addition to complex legal issues (and the eagerness of the ACLU to represent students in these cases), these student matters also raise potential community concerns and questions; therefore, you should immediately contact experienced legal counsel if you are faced with transgender student requests at your district.

Author: Michelle Alcala