ATLANTA (CN) — A Florida school board’s refusal to allow a transgender boy to use the bathroom matching his gender identity was unconstitutional, the 11th Circuit ruled Friday.
In a 2-1 decision, the Atlanta-based appeals court found that the St. Johns County school board violated Nease High School graduate Drew Adams’ civil rights by instructing Adams to use a gender neutral or girls’ restroom and warning him that he would be subject to disciplinary action if he used the boys’ bathroom.
“A public school may not punish its students for gender nonconformity. Neither may a public school harm transgender students by establishing arbitrary, separate rules for their restroom use. The evidence at trial confirms that Mr. Adams suffered both these indignities,” U.S. Circuit Judge Beverly Martin, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote on behalf of the majority Friday.
In a 28-page dissent in which he refers to Adams as “a female who identifies as a male,” U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee, said the majority opinion “distorts the [school board’s] policy, misunderstands the legal claims asserted, and rewrites well-established precedent.”
Pryor warned that the opinion will have “radical consequences for sex-separated bathrooms.”
The 11th Circuit’s ruling will affect schools in Florida, Georgia and Alabama and could lead to a Supreme Court battle over school bathroom policies.
Martin was joined in the majority by U.S. Circuit Judge Jill Pryor, another Obama appointee.
According to the ruling, Adams, who began medically transitioning from female to male before starting high school, used the boys’ restroom for six weeks during the ninth grade. After two anonymous female students who saw Adams entering the restroom complained, school officials ordered him to stop.
No complaints were made by male students who shared bathroom facilities with Adams.
According to court documents, both Adams’ Florida birth certificate and Florida driver’s license identify him as male.
Adams, the ruling states, felt “alienated and humiliated” by the school’s refusal to allow him to use the boys restroom.
Adams and his mother sued the school board in June 2017. After a three-day bench trial, U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan issued an injunction preventing the school board from enforcing its bathroom policy against him.
The school board appealed the ruling and the 11th Circuit heard oral arguments in December.
According to Friday’s ruling, school administrators barred Adams from the boys’ bathroom to enforce the school district’s “unwritten bathroom policy” requiring that students use the restroom that coincides with the sex on their enrollment documents.
But the majority ruled that the school district failed to show a “genuine, non-hypothetical privacy justification for excluding Mr. Adams from the boys’ bathroom” and found that the policy violated Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee.
The court ruled that the school’s “policy of exclusion” constitutes discrimination under Title IX, concluding that Title IX “prohibits discrimination against a person because he is transgender, because this constitutes discrimination based on sex.”
The policy “places a special burden on transgender students because their gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth,” Martin wrote.
In his dissenting opinion, Pryor objected to the majority’s interpretation of Title IX, writing that sex “unambiguously is a classification on the basis of reproductive function” and claiming that sex “has never meant gender identity.”
Pryor went on to argue that Congress could not have intended the term “sex” to include gender identity when the law was enacted in 1972 because the medical community at that time “was firmly opposed to sex reassignment surgery.”
“It is untenable to construe transgender status, which even the medical community saw as a departure from the norm, as altering the norm itself among the general public,” Pryor wrote.
The majority also found that the school board failed to demonstrate any relationship between excluding Adams from the boys’ restrooms and protecting the privacy of other students.
“Simply put, the School Board singled out Mr. Adams’s use of the restroom as problematic, without showing that Adams did, in fact, flout or compromise the privacy of other boys when he was in the boys’ restroom,” Martin wrote.
The majority opinion states that the policy “advances gender stereotypes by deeming Mr. Adams ‘truly’ female, even though he produced legal and medical documentation showing he was male” and “treats transgender students like Mr. Adams differently because they fail to conform to gender stereotypes.”
Pryor warned that the majority opinion could have dire legal consequences, saying, “Anyone can take advantage of the majority’s demolition of sex-specific bathroom privacy.”
“The majority does not offer a meaningful way to distinguish this appeal from one that challenges sex-separated bathrooms and locker rooms. It only insists that the issue is not before it. But do not be fooled: future plaintiffs can still leverage the majority’s narrow view of privacy,” Pryor wrote.
“Ultimately, if the privacy interest at stake is untethered from using the bathroom away from the opposite sex or from biological differences between the sexes, then no justification exists for separating bathrooms — or any related facility — by sex.”