Metro Weekly

Missouri Supreme Court: Transgender student barred from restroom can sue for sex discrimination

Supreme Court finds transgender people are protected from discrimination under the Missouri Human Rights Act

Missouri Supreme Court – Photo: Americasroof, via Wikimedia.

On Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that a transgender male student who was barred from the boys’ restroom and locker room has the right to sue for sex discrimination.

In a 5-2 decision, the court overturned a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit brought by R.M.A., a transgender student, against the Blue Springs school district, reports The Kansas City Star.

R.M.A. has identified as male since fourth grade, has been recognized as male in his school records, and has even been allowed to play on boys’ sports teams and take gym class with other male students. But he has been barred from male-designated spaces and facilities, and forced to use a unisex bathroom.

In October 2015, R.M.A. sued the district, alleging its policy on transgender students is discriminatory. A Jackson County Circuit judge granted the district’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, prompting R.M.A. to appeal the decision to the State Supreme Court.

The court’s ruling is significant because, in allowing R.M.A. to sue for sex discrimination, the court has signaled that it is embracing the interpretation that the Missouri Human Rights Law’s prohibitions against sex-based discrimination protect transgender people from discrimination in school or in the workplace.

The Missouri Human Rights Commission has previously dismissed complaints of transgender discrimination, noting that the Human Rights Law does not contain explicit protections for sexual orientation or gender identity.

The commission has largely embraced the view that “sex-based discrimination” only applies to instances where a person was discriminated against because of their biological sex at birth. 

“R.M.A.’s petition alleges he is a member of a protected class, he was discriminated against in the use of a public accommodation, his status as a member of a protected class was the basis for the discrimination he suffered, and he sustained damages…” the majority wrote in its opinion. “At this stage of the proceedings, that is all that is required of R.M.A; therefore, the circuit court should have overruled [the school district’s] motion to dismiss.”

Based on its ruling in the Blue Springs case, the Supreme Court also ruled in another case that a lower court should reconsider the case of Harold Lampley, a gay state employee who filed a sex discrimination complaint against the Missouri Department of Social Services alleging that he was harassed and given negative performance reviews at work because he did not conform to traditional gender stereotypes of what it means to be male.

In their dissent, Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Zel Fischer, joined by Judge W. Brett Powell, wrote: “The substantive principles of law within the [Missouri Human Rights Act] define the word ‘sex’ as biological sex. Consequently, the petition survives a motion to dismiss only if it alleges that, as a biological female, R.M.A. was deprived of a public accommodation available to biological males.

“R.M.A. makes no such allegation. Instead, R.M.A. alleges he is a female who has transitioned to living as a male, and that the Defendants discriminated against him based on his sex by preventing him from using the boys’ restrooms and locker room. … It is not this Court’s role to ‘question the wisdom, social desirability, or economic policy underlying a statute as these are matters for the legislature’s determination.’ Rather, this Court’s role is to declare the meaning of the language used in the MHRA consistent with legislative intent. The General Assembly has spoken, and R.M.A.’s petition fails to state a claim of unlawful sex discrimination under the MHRA.”

Fischer’s contention has been embraced by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees cases out of Missouri.

Recently, a federal judge dismissed a sex discrimination lawsuit brought by a married lesbian couple against a St. Louis-area retirement community who embraces the Biblical view that only marriages between men and women should be recognized as valid. In that case, U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton cited a 1990 decision by the 8th Circuit finding that “Title VII does not prohibit discrimination against homosexuals.”

Tony Rothert, the legal director for the ACLU of Missouri — which, along with the national ACLU and Transgender Law Center, filed amicus briefs in support of LGBTQ plaintiffs in both the Blue Springs and Lampley cases — celebrated the high court’s decision, calling it “another step toward improving the clarity of Missouri’s nondiscrimination stance.”

“Members of the LGBTQ community should enjoy the same protections against sex-based discrimination as everyone else,” Rothert said. “Excludingg LGBTQ individuals from legal protections was justified by outdated, destructive stereotypes and ignored the lived reality of thousands of people in our state.”

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

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