Federal Appeals Court Backs Transgender Student on School Restroom Use

By Mark Walsh — August 09, 2020 4 min read
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A federal appeals court has ruled that a Florida school district’s policy barring a transgender male student from the boys’ restroom violated the student’s rights under both the equal-protection clause and Title IX.

The panel said that student Drew Adams’s Title IX claim was bolstered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga., that transgender workers are protected from discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Bostock has great import for Mr. Adams’s Title IX claim,” says the majority opinion for the 2-1 panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta. “Bostock confirmed that workplace discrimination against transgender people is contrary to law. Neither should this discrimination be tolerated in schools. The school board’s bathroom policy, as applied to Mr. Adams, singled him out for different treatment because of his transgender status.”

The Aug. 7 decision in Adams v. St. Johns County School Board involves Adams, who was assigned as a female at birth but suffered gender dysphoria and had begun presenting and living as a boy by the time he entered Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, Fla., in 2015.

Adams used the boys’ restroom for his first nine weeks of 9th grade, court papers say, but after a complaint administrators informed him he could use only the girls’ restroom or a gender-neutral, single-stall restroom in the school office. The St. Johns district had adopted a “best practices” policy for LGBTQ students that included using transgender students’ preferred pronouns. But it declined to allow transgender students to use restrooms or locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.

Adams and his mother sued the district under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars discrimination “based on sex” in federally funded schools, as well as under the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause.

A federal district court ruled in favor of Adams on both his Title IX and equal-protection clause claims, and the school board appealed to the 11th Circuit.

While the case was pending, the Supreme Court decided in Bostock that discrimination against gay, lesbian, or transgender employees was a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. Writing in dissent in the 6-3 decision, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. predicted (with dismay, from his viewpoint) that the Title VII decision would lead to rulings under Title IX supporting transgender students seeking to use school facilities that match their gender identity.

The 11th Circuit court is the first court to issue such a ruling citing Bostock, though some other federal appeals courts and lower federal courts have been siding with transgender students for years based on the theory that transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination barred by Title IX.

The St. Johns County district argued before the 11th Circuit that Title IX’s bar on sex discrimination is different from Title VII’s because “schools are a wildly different environment than the workplace” and education “is the province of local governmental officials.”

“We are not persuaded,” Chief Judge Beverly B. Martin wrote for the majority. “Congress saw fit to outlaw sex discrimination in federally funded schools, just as it did in covered workplaces. ... With Bostock‘s guidance, we conclude that Title IX, like Title VII, prohibits discrimination against a person because he is transgender, because this constitutes discrimination based on sex.”

In also ruling for Adams’s equal-protection claim, the majority said “The school board’s bathroom policy singles out transgender students for differential treatment because they are transgender. ... The policy places a special burden on transgender students because their gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth.”

In a sharp dissent, Judge William H. Pryor Jr. said the majority’s decision cast legal doubt on sex-segregated bathrooms in schools.

The majority “reaches the remarkable conclusion that schoolchildren have no sex-specific privacy interests when using the bathroom,” Pryor said, and “the logic of this decision would require all schoolchildren to use sex-neutral bathrooms.”

“There is nothing unlawful, under either the Constitution or federal law, about a policy that separates bathrooms for schoolchildren on the basis of sex,” Pryor said.

The majority answered Pryor in a footnote, saying the dissent’s “central flaw is that it does not meaningfully reckon with what it means for Mr. Adams to be a transgender boy. ... The dissent fails to acknowledge Mr. Adams’s gender transition, his gender dysphoria and clinical treatment, or the unique significance of his restroom use to his wellbeing.”

Adams, now a 19-year-old college student, praised the decision in a statement released by Lambda Legal, a New York City-based civil rights group that represented him.

“I am very happy to see justice prevail, after spending almost my entire high school career fighting for equal treatment,” Adams said. “High school is hard enough without having your school separate you from your peers and mark you as inferior. I hope this decision helps save other transgender students from having to go through that painful and humiliating experience.”

There was no immediate reaction from the St. Johns County district.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.