Metro Weekly

Federal judge dismisses lawsuit challenging Connecticut’s transgender athlete policy

Judge found the lawsuit to be moot, since two of the plaintiffs, and the trans athletes they sought to block from competing, have since graduated.

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Track athletes – Photo: Mark Lee, via Unsplash.

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging Connecticut’s policy allowing transgender high school athletes to compete in sports based on their gender identity, a policy which has served as the impetus for dozens of states to consider legislation banning transgender females from competing in women’s sports.

In a ruling released on Sunday, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Chatigny dismissed the lawsuit on procedural grounds, noting that two of the four cisgender plaintiffs bringing the suit — Chelsea Mitchell, of Canton, and Selina Soule, of Glastonbury — had since graduated and are thus ineligible to compete in Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference events.

Similarly, the two transgender athletes whose participation was challenged — Andraya Yearwood of Cromwell and Terry Miller of Bloomfield — have also graduated, thus removing the alleged “harms” claimed by plaintiffs.

Much of the case revolved around the request by plaintiffs to bar Yearwood and Miller from competing in the 2020 outdoor track and field season last spring, but that season ended up being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thus making the challenge moot. Because Miller and Yearwood have since graduated, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers, from the right-wing organization Alliance Defending Freedom, were unable to identify any other transgender female athletes competing, Chatigny found that there was no further dispute to resolve.

However, Chatigny did leave open the possibility that a lawsuit could be refiled at a later time if any additional transgender athletes were to compete during the coming school year.

The two remaining plaintiffs, Alanna Smith and Ashley Nicoletti, both of Danbury, are currently juniors, meaning they have one more year of eligibility to compete in CIAC events. But, for now, Chatigny rejected ADF’s arguments that CIAC’s transgender participation policy must be overturned, saying he could not base his decision on the assumption that another trans student might compete in track and field over the next year.

“There is no indication that Smith and Nicoletti will encounter competition by a transgender student in a CIAC-sponsored event next season,” Chatigny wrote in his opinion. “Defendants’ counsel have represented that they know of no transgender student who will be participating in girls’ track at that time. It is still theoretically possible that a transgender student could attempt to do so. Even then, however, a legally cognizable injury to these plaintiffs would depend on a transgender student running in the same events and achieving substantially similar times. Such ‘speculative contingencies’ are insufficient to satisfy the case.”

In addition to denying the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to stop the CIAC from following its own rules, Chatigny also denied monetary damages requested by them, and refused the plaintiffs’ request to revise state records currently held by Miller or Yearwood, according to the Hartford Courant.

The decision marks yet another setback for the plaintiffs, whose lawsuit initially received support from the Trump administration, with former U.S. Attorney General William Barr issuing a statement of interest in their case, stating that the federal government has an interest in ensuring that Title IX’s protections against sex-based discrimination aren’t interpreted in a way that disadvantages cisgender female athletes. But in February 2021, the Justice Department under the Biden administration later reversed the department’s support for the lawsuit.

Related: Judge in track athlete lawsuit asked to recuse himself for not allowing misgendering of trans athletes

The plaintiffs had also previously filed a Title IX complaint in 2019, sparking an investigation against the CIAC and specific school districts allowing transgender girls to compete based on their gender identity. But in February, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, in conjunction with the Justice Department’s actions, withdrew its enforcement action against the CIAC and the schools named in the plaintiffs’ Title IX complaint.

Defense lawyers had also noted during oral arguments that Miller and Yearwood had not beaten cisgender runners in every instance, with Chelsea Mitchell actually beating Miller head-to-head in last year’s indoor track championships.

In a statement released by ADF, the plaintiffs vowed to appeal Chatigny’s ruling.

“Our clients — like all female athletes — deserve access to fair competition; that means authentically equal opportunities to compete, achieve, and win,” ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb said. “But competition is no longer fair when males are permitted to compete in girls’ sports.

“Males will always have inherent physical advantages over comparably talented and trained girls; that’s the reason we have girls’ sports in the first place,” Holcomb added. “Unfortunately, this court has chosen to ignore our clients’ demoralizing experiences of losing to male runners. But these committed female athletes — and young women across the country — deserve better. Today, the conversation centers on Connecticut’s high school track and field program, but there’s something bigger at stake here: Girls and women deserve opportunities that are truly equal — without being sidelined or dominated by males choosing to join their sport.”

The controversy over Miller and Yearwood’s participation in CIAC-sponsored events has been seized upon by social conservatives and Republican politicians, still angry about the outcome of the 2020 election, as a potential wedge issue for 2022.

As such, more than 60 bills seeking to bar transgender athletes from competing in sports consistent with their gender identity have cropped up in 30 different state legislatures, with four states — Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee — passing such bans.

Republican governors in Montana and West Virginia are expected to follow suit, although North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, vetoed a similar measure in his state, as did Democrat Gov. Laura Kelly in Kansas. 

For its part, the CIAC released a statement on Monday saying it was pleased with Chatigny’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit challenging CIAC policy, which it says is in compliance with Connecticut’s law barring discrimination based on gender identity.

“The district court’s decision recognized that the CIAC policy reflects the federal guidance in place at the time it was adopted, and that there is no basis for a claim for damages against public schools who participate in CIAC sponsored athletics,” the state’s governing sports body said in its statement. “The CIAC has maintained throughout this lawsuit that its inclusive participation policy aligns with both federal and state law, and it was prepared to defend this lawsuit on the merits had there been any basis for it to continue. The CIAC continues to welcome and support inclusive education-based athletic participation, including by transgender students, in accordance with its mission to promote meaningful participation in high school sports activities for all student-athletes.”

Joshua Block, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBTQ & HIV Project, which had intervened in the lawsuit on Miller and Yearwood’s behalf, praised Chatigny’s ruling as good news for transgender athletes. 

“[The] ruling shows that allowing transgender students to fully participate in school — including sports — is consistent with existing federal law. This is yet another sign that lawmakers attacking trans youth in states around the country have no legal basis for their claims,” Block said in a statement. “When Andraya and Terry ran in high school, they belonged on the girls’ teams because they are girls. They benefited from being on a team, working to better themselves and having an escape from the rest of their days — the same things that anyone else benefits from when playing sports. We will continue to fight against these attacks on transgender youth wherever they come.”

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