Appeals court backs transgender student again, but on narrower grounds amid signs of loophole


A federal appeals panel on Wednesday released a revised notice that ruled again for a transgender student in Florida, but on narrower grounds than a ruling last year.

The new opinion suggests some behind-the-scenes wrangling over whether the full appeals court would reconsider the case and reveals a deep rift over the issue of legal protections for transgender students.

Last august, the U.S. Court of Appeals panel for the 11th Circuit, Atlanta, ruled 2-1 for student Drew Adams based on both the 14th Amendment equal protection clause and the title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, which banned sex discrimination in federally funded schools.

The new notice in Adams v. St. Johns County School Board governs only on grounds of equal protection for Adams, who challenged a school board policy that prohibited him from going to boys’ bathrooms after he started portraying himself as a boy when he entered Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, Florida, in 2015.

Chief Justice Beverly B. Martin said that just after the panel rendered its initial decision last August, a member of the 11th Circuit tribunal took procedural action that delayed the delivery of a final judgment in the case. This was obviously to give the whole tribunal time to consider whether to rehear the case.

“In an effort to gain broader support among our colleagues, we are rescinding the notice issued on August 7, 2020… and replacing it with this one,” Martin wrote. “This revised opinion does not address the Title IX issue and only hits one ground under the equal protection clause instead of the three equal protection decisions we made in the August 7 opinion. “

Meanwhile, the majority and dissent in the panel’s revised opinion traded a few sharp points.

“The majority of the dissent pages are directed to an opinion that no longer exists,” Martin wrote. “Indeed, much of the dissent continues to focus on an opinion we never wrote. We see dissenting recycling of outdated arguments as an appropriate metaphor for his analytical approach.

Judge William H. Pryor Jr., who slightly revised the dissent he wrote last August but maintained his view in favor of the school district, said that “the new majority opinion is shorter, but it is no less false “.

“By failing to tackle the legality of sex-separated toilets in schools head-on, the majority is overhauling school policy by classifying students on the basis of transgender status,” Pryor said. “And based on this overhaul, he came to the remarkable conclusion that schoolchildren have no gender-specific privacy interests when using the bathroom.”

The new opinion in the Florida case comes as the rights of transgender students continue to be hotly debated in state courtrooms and legislatures. At least one other federal appeals court has ruled that Title IX protects transgender students who seek to use school toilets and locker rooms in accordance with their gender identity.

The United States Supreme Court recently refused to hear an appeal from a Virginia school board in the case of transgender student Gavin Grimm. The United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., In 2020 had ruled in favor of Grimm on Title IX and grounds of equal protection. Regarding Title IX, the 4th Circuit considered that the analysis was similar to that made by the Supreme Court when it interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. or gender identity in the job.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal of the 4th Circuit decision was not a decision on the merits, and the High Court may have wanted to allow the rights of transgender students to continue to pervade the area. lower courts.

The majority and dissent in the revised 11th Circuit panel opinion in the Adams case continued to quarrel on questions of fact and law.

Adams used the boys ‘toilet for his first nine weeks of Grade 9, court documents say, but after a complaint administrators informed him that he could only use the girls’ or non-sexist toilets and to only one stall in the school office. The District of St. Johns had adopted a “best practice” policy for LGBTQ students, which included the use of pronouns preferred by transgender students. But he refused to allow transgender students to use washrooms or locker rooms compatible with their gender identity.

In the revised notice, the majority said the policy of the St. Johns School Board was arbitrary and that the district did not accept Adams’ amended birth certificate in Florida, which lists him as a man, and instead relied on Adams’ birth certificate at the time of registration, which listed Adams as a female.

School district policy “requires a student’s enrollment record to take precedence over current government records, even if those government-issued documents constitute a control identification for any other purpose,” Martin said for the majority.

The majority concluded by saying that because they were making their decision in Adams’ favor on the basis of the equal protection clause, they did not need to deal with their Title IX claim.

Pryor, a dissident, continued to argue that majority reasoning threatens gender-separated toilet policies in schools. And he said the school district has no obligation to “accept updates” on a student’s gender identity as expressed on state documents.

“A student’s gender does not have an expiration date and it does not require periodic updates to confirm its continued accuracy,” Pryor said. “The object of school practice with respect to enrollment documents is to determine the sex of students, not their gender identity.

Lambda Legal, a New York-based LGBTQ civil rights organization that represents Adams, issued a statement praising the revised ruling, without addressing its narrower scope or any potential behind-the-scenes drama.

Adams is now a student in Florida.

Lawyers for the St. Johns District, who have asked the entire 11th Circuit to rehear the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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