Metro Weekly

Federal judge blocks Obama administration’s transgender guidance

But civil rights organizations note the decision isn't binding on other cases involving transgender rights

Eldon B. Mahon Federal Courthouse in Fort Worth, Texas - Photo: Turn685, via Wikimedia.

Eldon B. Mahon Federal Courthouse in Fort Worth, Texas – Photo: Turn685, via Wikimedia.

A federal judge in Fort Worth, Texas has blocked guidance from the Obama administration that says transgender students must be allowed to use the bathrooms of their choice. The injunction was issued late Sunday by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, a George W. Bush appointee, reports Reuters.

O’Connor said that the Obama administration did not follow proper procedures for notice and comment in issuing the guidelines. He also agreed with the plaintiffs, which include representatives from 13 different states, that the guidance was a form of federal overreach.

States have argued that the federal government is attempting to circumvent Congress to achieve a desired aim of allowing transgender students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, as opposed to their biological sex.

The states also argue that the administration is taking away the power of local school districts to adopt their own policies through coercion, by threatening to yank federal funds from those who do not adhere to the guidance.

“Although Defendants have characterized the Guidelines as interpretive, post-guidance events and their actual legal effect prove that they are ‘compulsory in nature,'” O’Connor wrote in issuing the injunction.

The U.S. Department of Justice had argued that the guidelines were non-binding and held no legal consequences for schools who refuse to allow transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.

With the injunction now in place, the Obama administration is temporarily prohibited from enforcing those guidelines “against plaintiffs and their respective schools, school boards, and other public, educationally based institutions.

A group of five civil rights organizations — Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Transgender Law Center, and GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders — that support the administration’s position issued a joint statement in response to O’Connor’s actions.

“A ruling by a single judge in one circuit cannot and does not undo the years of clear legal precedent nationwide establishing that transgender students have the right to go to school without being singled out for discrimination,” it reads.

“This unfortunate and premature ruling may, however, confuse school districts that are simply trying to support their students, including their transgender students. So let us make it clear to those districts: your obligations under the law have not changed, and you are still not only allowed but required to treat transgender students fairly.”

The civil rights organizations also noted that the injunction should not prevent other cases involving transgender people’s access to facilities consistent with their gender identity from moving forward in other circuits.

One such case is the ongoing fight in Gloucester County, Va., where transgender student Gavin Grimm is seeking to be able to use the boys’ restroom. Cases like Grimm’s may still use the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX to argue that denying transgender people equal access constitutes a form of sex discrimination.

“All students, regardless of their gender identity, deserve to be able to learn in an environment free from discrimination,” Sarah Warbelow, the legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “Despite this judge’s decision, schools are not barred from following the federal guidance, and school administrators still have a responsibility to ensure that the civil rights of all students are respected and that transgender students have access to facilities consistent with their gender identity.

“As lawsuits on the scope of Title IX proceed, we believe that justice will prevail as courts continue to recognize that discrimination against transgender students is a form of sex discrimination.”

Related: Education Department moves to protect transgender students from discrimination

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com