Victory: Third Circuit Court of Appeals Affirms Rights of Transgender Students

This afternoon, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling that upheld a Pennsylvania school district’s policy that permits transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.

Court observers had the opportunity to witness a rare spectacle. Rather than take weeks or months to issue an opinion after arguments, the three-judge panel convened for a less than 30 minutes before ruling in favor of Boyertown Area School District’s policy and by extension, the rights of transgender students.

The plaintiffs, four cisgender students who claimed they were harassed by the mere presence of a transgender person in the locker room or restroom, were represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom. The School District defended the suit, and the Pennsylvania Youth Congress Foundation, a coalition of LGBTQ youth leaders and youth organizations, intervened in the lawsuit. They were represented by the ACLU and ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Attorneys at the Women’s Law Project and co-counsel at Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLP filed an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief in support of the Boyertown policy that argues that the presence of transgender students in facilities corresponding to their gender identity does not violate Title IX. Rather, Title IX protects the rights of transgender students to use those facilities.

Twelve organizations signed on to the brief, including the American Association of University Women, California Women’s Law Center, Champion Women, Equal Rights Advocates, Gender Justice, Legal Aid at Work, Legal Voice, National Women’s Law Center, New Voices for Reproductive Justice, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, Southwest Women’s Law Center, and Women’s Law Center of Maryland.

“This ruling is a huge victory for the rights of transgender students,” says WLP staff attorney Amal Bass, who co-authored the amicus brief with staff attorney Christine Castro and managing attorney Terry L. Fromson. “The momentum is undeniable, and the Third Circuit panel sent an important message today by issuing its decision unanimously and immediately.”

You can read or download our brief here.

For all of the documents, see here.

Background

Boyertown School District instituted a policy to allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that reflect their gender identity, rather than the sex identified on their birth certificates.

Four anonymous students represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal advocacy group often focused on restricting the rights of LGBTQ people, challenged the policy, arguing that the presence of transgender student constituted sexual harassment under Title IX and violated the Constitution.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil rights law designed to eliminate sex discrimination in schools and education programs.

Our Argument

Our brief highlights the fact that the courts have previously ruled that a person’s reproductive anatomy is not, in all instances, an accurate signifier of a person’s sex. For transgender people, a person’s gender identity is the most accurate determinant of their sex. Thus, Title IX does not provide a legal basis for Appellant-students to deny transgender students equal access to an education.

To the contrary, Title IX requires the school district continue the current policy of enabling transgender students to use facilities matching their gender identity because the alternative—a policy that segregates students only by biology-based, assigned sex—would discriminate against transgender students by denying them use of facilities in accordance with their gender identity.

Indeed, when plaintiff’s counsel advised the judges that he was merely asking for a “return to the status quo,” meaning, a reversal of the recently enacted policy, Circuit Judge Theodore McKee responded by bringing up landmark segregation case Brown v. Board of Education, pointing out that changes are made when there is a problem with the status quo.

“The Momentum is Undeniable”

This victory comes on the heels of another big win for transgender rights in the United States. On Tuesday May 22, a federal court ruled against a Virginia school district, holding that federal law protects a transgender student who sought to use the boys’ bathroom at his school. A federal appeals court based in Chicago issued a similar ruling in a different challenge in May 2017.

The Women’s Law Project is a public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.

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About womenslawproject

The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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