The U.S. Supreme Court won’t wade into fight over Pa. school’s bathroom policy for trans students

This piece has been updated to include comment from the Education Law Center and U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear an appeal in a case surrounding a Pennsylvania school district’s policy on bathroom access for transgender students.

The high court’s move to sidestep the case marks a victory for transgender rights advocates in Pennsylvania and nationwide. It keeps in place a lower court’s decision upholding the school district’s policy, which allows some transgender students to use locker rooms and restrooms based on their gender identity rather than sex assigned at birth.

The legal dispute began when students of the Boyertown Area School District complained that their privacy was violated when transgender students were allowed to use locker rooms that aligned with their gender identities.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit last July upheld the district’s policy, ruling that “the presence of transgender students in the locker and restrooms is no more offensive to constitutional or Pennsylvania law privacy interests than the presence of the other students who are not transgender.”

The 3rd Circuit warned that requiring transgender students to use single-user or birth sex-aligned facilities is its own form of discrimination.

“We’re happy the Supreme Court has recognized the lower court’s decision here,” said Gillian Branstetter, media relations manager at the National Center for Transgender Equality. “The lower court’s decision in this is a really strong endorsement of the need for protections for transgender students.”

In a statement, Lizzy Wingfield of the Education Law Center, said the organization was pleased by the high court’s decision to “[reject] an appeal of the Third Circuit’s well-reasoned” ruling.

Prior to the appellate court’s ruling “many school districts were confused about their obligations to transgender students under civil rights laws,” Wingfield continued. “But now, it is clear, by looking at the Third Circuit decision and other cases that required schools to affirm transgender students, that school districts must allow LGBTQ students to be themselves in school.”

In a tweet, U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District, whose district includes Boyertown, said she “[applauds] the Supreme Court’s decision. Our schools should welcome everyone, and that’s what Boyertown School District has done. I stand in strong of their policy and this decision.”

The Pennsylvania students challenging the school district’s policy were represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group that’s been leading efforts nationwide to limit transgender students’ access to bathrooms that align with their gender identities.

“Forcing a teenager to share a locker room or restroom with a member of the opposite sex can cause embarrassment and distress, particularly for students who have been victims of sexual assault,” lawyers from the Alliance Defending Freedom argued to the Supreme Court in their request for the justices to hear their appeal.

But the school district argued that its policy didn’t result in any disruptions to its educational program and that students “have been very accepting of their transgender classmates.” Its lawyers noted that Boyertown Area Senior High students have several privacy options for those who don’t want to share facilities with transgender students.

The Supreme Court decides to review only a tiny fraction of the thousands of cases seeking appeal each year.

The high court’s announcement comes amid an ongoing debate in Pennsylvania over long-sought legislation that would ban employment, housing, and public accommodation discrimination against LGBTQ Pennsylvanians.

Thanks to a personnel change in a key committee, and an influx of younger, more progressive-minded lawmakers, backers of the bill, referred to as “The Fairness Act,” believe they have their best chance in years of landing it on Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced a planned rollback of Obama-era “protections under the 2010 health care law related to sex discrimination, which some advocates worry could affect health care access for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” Roll Call reported.

In a statement issued by his office, Wolf denounced the new policy, and again called on lawmakers to pass the state-level nondiscrimination bill.

“As the federal government goes backwards, it is past time for Pennsylvania to protect our LGBTQ citizens,” Wolf said. “Increased protections for members of the LGBTQ community in Pennsylvania are long overdue and desperately needed to push back against the Trump Administration’s track record of increased discriminatory policies and protection rollbacks. I urge the General Assembly to advance protections for the LGBTQ community by passing comprehensive non-discrimination and expanding our hate crimes law to protect LGBTQ citizens.”

The Capital-Star’s John L. Micek contributed to this story. 

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