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Federal case against Iowa school district gender-affirming policy dismissed as moot

The Eighth Circuit said the parents had won their battle when Iowa Legislature outlawed such policies, but the court preserved a First Amendment issue not resolved by the new state law.

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — An Eighth Circuit panel delivered a mixed decision Friday to a group of parents who challenged an Iowa school district’s policy respecting students’ gender nonconformity.

The Eighth Circuit panel in St. Louis ruled the parents won the battle earlier when Iowa Legislature outlawed such policies, and those issues were moot as a result. The court, however, preserved an issue that was not resolved by the new state law: the First Amendment rights of students who fail to “respect” another student’s gender identity.

The Linn-Mar Community School District in eastern Iowa created the policy to “address the needs of transgender students, gender-expansive students, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming students, and students questioning their gender to ensure a safe, affirming, and healthy school environment where every student can learn effectively.”

Among other things, the policy accommodated “transgender students regarding names/pronouns, restroom and locker facilities, overnight accommodations on school trips, and participation in activities.” A school in the Linn-Mar district could create a “gender support plan” at the request of a student “to create a shared understanding about the ways in which a student’s gender identity will be accounted for and supported at school.”

The organization Parents Defending Education sued the school district in August 2022 on behalf of seven anonymous parents — all of whom have children with special needs or who may be likely to express gender nonconformity. They characterize the policy as a usurpation of their fundamental rights as parents to raise their children as they see fit.

U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent implementation of the policy.

In their appeal to the Eighth Circuit, which was argued this past February, the parents’ group claimed, among other things, that the district’s policy violated their right to direct the care, custody and control of their children because the policy prevented the district’s schools from notifying parents if their child had been given a gender support plan or assumed transgender status.

On that claim, the appellate panel dismissed as moot the parents’ challenge of Williams' ruling because, after the case was argued, the Iowa Legislature enacted legislation that provides the parents with the relief they sought.

The new state law, which became effective July 1, prohibits a school district from knowingly giving “false or misleading information to the parent or guardian of a student regarding the student’s gender identity or intention to transition to a gender that is different than the sex listed on the student’s official birth certificate.” The law also requires that a parent or guardian be notified if a student asks a school official for an accommodation that is “intended to affirm the student’s gender identity.”

The appeals court, however, held that the parents’ group has standing to pursue their claim that the Linn-Mar policy violates a child’s freedom of speech because the policy could be enforced with the prospect of disciplinary action if a student who disagrees with the policy refuses to respect another student’s gender identity.

“The district argues that the suggested activity is not ‘affected with a constitutional interest,’ because harassment or bullying on the basis of gender is not protected speech within the school environment,” U.S. Circuit Judge Steven Colloton, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote for the panel. But, he added: “A school district cannot avoid the strictures of the First Amendment simply by defining certain speech as ‘bullying’ or ‘harassment’.”

“The district’s policy does not provide adequate notice of what conduct is prohibited, because it fails to define the term ‘respect’,” he wrote. “As the district court acknowledged, ‘respect’ has various meanings. Because the policy does not define or limit the term, it could cover any speech about gender identity that a school administrator deems ‘disrespectful’ of another student’s gender identity. A student thus cannot know whether he is violating the policy when he expresses discomfort about sharing a bathroom with someone who is transgender, argues that biological sex is immutable during a debate in social studies class, or expresses an opinion about the participation of transgender students on single-sex athletic teams.”

The case was remanded to the trial court with directions to grant a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the portion of Linn-Mar’s policy that prohibits an “intentional or persistent refusal ‘to respect a student’s gender identity.’”

U.S. Circuit Judges Duane Benton, a George W. Bush appointee, and Jane Kelly, a Barack Obama appointee, joined the opinion.

A spokesman for the Linn-Mar Community School District did not respond to a request for comment Friday morning.

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Categories / Appeals, Education, First Amendment, Health

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