Metro Weekly

Federal judge blocks Pittsburgh school district’s anti-trans bathroom policy

Juliet Evancho, Elissa Ridenour and a third student must be allowed to use facilities at Pine-Richland that match their gender identities

Juliet Evancho and Elissa Ridenour – Photos: Lambda Legal.

A federal judge has issued an injunction to stop a suburban Pittsburgh school district from enforcing a policy that bars transgender students from restrooms that match their gender identities.

U.S. District Judge Mark Hornak of the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled that Pine-Richland school district must immediately cease barring three high school seniors — 18-year-old Juliet Evancho, 18-year-old Elissa Ridenour, and 17-year-old “A.S.” — from using bathrooms that they previously were able to access under the district’s old policy.

“The Plaintiffs appear to the Court to be young people seeking to do what young people try to do every day — go to school, obtain an education, and interact as equals with their peers,” Hornak wrote in his opinion. “[T]he Plaintiffs have shown a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the District’s enforcement of Resolution 2 as to their use of common school restrooms does not afford them equal protection of the law as guaranteed to them by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The school district changed its longstanding policy allowing transgender students to use the restroom matching their gender identity in September, after caving to political pressure from parents and outside conservative interest groups.

While Hornak did not agree that the three seniors were likely to succeed in pursuing a claim of discrimination under Title IX, he did agree that they would be successful in pursuing a lawsuit alleging discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Hornak dismissed the students’ Title IX claims, but rejected the district’s request to dismiss the case entirely. Even if the plaintiffs choose to appeal Hornak’s ruling on the Title IX claim, Evancho and Ridenour, for the time being, will be allowed to use the girls’ restroom, and A.S. will be permitted to use the boys’ restroom while their lawsuit against the school district is decided on its merits.

“This is a huge win for Juliet, Elissa and A.S., who will be able once again to use the bathroom that matches who they are,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, a staff attorney with Lambda Legal, which is representing the three seniors. “Not withstanding the Trump Administration’s misguided and cruel actions last week, the court today found that the school’s policy barring transgender students from the restroom that matches who they are violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“Every student must be respected for who they are and be afforded equal educational opportunity. The court recognized that policies that seek to erase a transgender student’s identity do not address any real problems, but rather only serve to discriminate and harm our youth,” Gonzalez-Pagan added. “Such policies are not only wrong, they are illegal. The rescission of a guidance by the Trump administration cannot change that.”

Monday’s victory for the seniors at Pine-Richland High School marks yet another crucial milestone for transgender students across the nation.

While the U.S. Supreme Court is slated to hear oral arguments on Mar. 28 in a lawsuit brought by Virginia teenager Gavin Grimm against his local school board, those arguments only deal with the how the court should interpret Title IX.

A lower court judge has not yet ruled on whether Grimm’s rights were violated under the Equal Protection Clause, but could still rule in his favor. With Hornak’s decision in the Pine-Richland case, the trend among courts appears to be moving toward the understanding that discrimination based on gender identity is still unconstitutional, at least under the Fourteenth Amendment.

“This is wonderful news and a tremendous relief that we can now use the bathroom without feeling isolated and humiliated,” Ridenour said in a statement. “The past months have been incredibly stressful, and this was all so unnecessary. There was no problem before, and we are confident there will be no problem now.”

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