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Equality Pa: Ruling puts trans students in difficult position

PAUL J. WEBER
Associated Press
  • Judge O’Connor ruled that the federal education law, Title IX, “is not ambiguous.”
  • He also said schools should have been allowed to weigh in before the directive was announced in May.

A federal judge in Texas is blocking, for now, the Obama administration’s directive to U.S. public schools that transgender students must be allowed to use the bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity.

On Monday — the first day of class for most public schools in Texas and Pennsylvania — hundreds of school districts awoke to news of the order by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor.

York Suburban School District has been back in school since Wednesday, but Superintendent Shelly Merkle said the order has not affected the district's plans.

In this photo taken Thursday, May 12, 2016, signage is seen outside a restroom at 21c Museum Hotel in Durham, N.C. North Carolina is in a legal battle over a state law that requires transgender people to use the public restroom matching the sex on their birth certificate. The ADA-compliant bathroom signs were designed by artist Peregrine Honig. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Merkle said the district intends to support transgender students without making any other students uncomfortable.

Any transgender student who is uncomfortable can meet with a counselor or administrator to gain access to a single-person bathroom, she said. Each case will be treated on an individual basis, Merkle added.

"Schools are in a very difficult position," Merkle said. "Any questions students or parents have should be addressed to school administrators."

O'Connor's decision, dated Sunday, comes after Texas and 12 other states challenged the Obama directive as unconstitutional. O’Connor ruled that the federal education law, Title IX, “is not ambiguous” about sex being defined as “the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth.”

He also sided with Republican state leaders who argued that schools should have been allowed to weigh in before the directive was announced in May.

Local reaction: Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, called the decision "extremely disappointing."

"This potentially puts students in awkward, dangerous situations," he said.

Debate over the past few months might put transgender students in an even more precarious position than before Obama's directive was given, Martin added.

"It's inflamed tensions on both sides," he said. "Students just want to go to school to learn, and this has put them in more difficult positions."

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, had argued that halting the law before school began was necessary because districts risked losing federal education dollars if they didn’t comply. Federal officials didn’t explicitly make that threat upon issuing the directive, although they also never ruled out the possibility.

“This president is attempting to rewrite the laws enacted by the elected representatives of the people and is threatening to take away federal funding from schools to force them to conform,” Paxton said. “That cannot be allowed to continue, which is why we took action to protect states and school districts.”

The Education and Justice departments did not immediately react to the injunction.

Difficulties: Karen Rollins-Fitch, acting chair for the York City Human Relations Commission, said she hasn't had any outreach with the schools regarding the federal policy because the commission has been on summer recess since the ordinance was  announced.

Rollins-Fitch said the commission's stance is that schools need to be open to the federal policy because it will benefit the students.

"This makes it more difficult for students that are transgender," she said of the judge's order. "As a society, we like to place everyone in a certain group, but sometimes the square peg doesn't fit in the round hole."

Rollins-Fitch added that the commission will likely communicate with schools on this issue once they return from recess  Sept. 19.

Paul Castillo, a Dallas attorney for the gay rights group Lambda Legal that had urged the court to let the directive stand, said the ruling was a continuation of attacks on transgender people.

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“I think today is going to be a hard day for transgender students,” Castillo said. “The decision is certainly emotional and certainly an attack on transgender students’ dignity.”

The federal government told U.S. public schools in May that transgender students must be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity. That announcement came days after the Justice Department sued North Carolina over a state law that requires people to use public bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate, which U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch had likened to policies of racial segregation. Republicans have argued such laws are commonsense privacy safeguards.

The Obama administration had told the court that recipients of federal education dollars “are clearly on notice” that antidiscrimination polices must be followed. Texas alone gets roughly $10 billion in federal education funds.

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The lawsuit was filed in May by Texas, Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Utah and Georgia, and the Republican governors of Maine, Mississippi and Kentucky. Two small school districts in Arizona and Texas, which have fewer than 600 students combined and no transgender persons on their campuses, also joined the effort to prevent the directive from being enforced.

— Staff writer David Weissman contributed to this report.