HARTFORD, Conn. (CN) — Connecticut’s policy of letting transgender students compete in high school sports drew a February lawsuit and now a notice of impending enforcement action from the U.S. government.
Sent to lawyers for the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference and six public school districts, the letter from the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights concludes that the state discriminates against students who are biologically female by making them participate in athletics with transgender athletes whose sex traits could impart competitive advantages.
The finding comes in response to a complaint several female track athletes filed with the government last year and then in U.S. District Court as well.
Dated May 15, the OCR’s 45-page finding concludes that the CIAC “denied athletic benefits and opportunities to female student-athletes competing in interscholastic girls’ track in the state of Connecticut through the Revised Transgender Participation Policy, in violation of the regulation implementing Title IX.”
The OCR said it may seek to withhold federal funding if the policy is not changed for the CIAC and six school districts included in the complaint. It said the policy is a violation of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that guarantees equal education opportunities for women, including in athletics.
In a lengthy statement Thursday, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference pointed to Connecticut law, which it says is “clear that students who identify as female are to be recognized as female for all purposes — including high school sports.”
“To do otherwise would not only be discriminatory but would deprive high school students of the meaningful opportunity to participate in educational activities, including inter-scholastic sports, based on sex-stereotyping and prejudice sought to be prevented by Title IX and Connecticut state law,” it added.
The conference also notes that it was just three ago that the U.S. “Department of Justice and the Department of Education withdrew earlier guidance documents that aligned with the CIAC’s policy, stating in part that such guidance had not be subject to any formal public process and further explaining that ‘there must be due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing educational policy.”
“Multiple federal courts and government agencies, such as the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, have acknowledged that the term ‘sex’ in Title IX is ambiguous and that historical usage of the term ‘sex’ has not kept pace with contemporary science, advances in medical knowledge, and societal norms,” the conference wrote.
Christiana Holcomb, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom who represents the plaintiff track athletes in court, praised the government for endorsing their position.
“Girls shouldn’t be reduced to spectators in their own sports,” Holcomb said in an email, adding that her team will be asking the CIAC to update its policy to comply with federal law.
“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 said.
Chelsea Mitchell, one of the students who filed the complaint, lauded the government’s letter as well.
“It feels like we are finally headed in the right direction, and that we will be able to get justice for the countless girls along with myself that have faced discrimination for years,” she said. “It is liberating to know that my voice, my story, my loss, has been heard — that those championships I lost mean something.”
The Office for Civil Rights said it will “either initiate administrative proceedings to suspend, terminate, or refuse to grant or continue and defer financial assistance” to the CIAC and those districts or refer the cases to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Attorneys representing Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, the two female transgender athletes, meanwhile called the government’s letter political.
“All that today’s finding represents is yet another attack from the Trump administration on transgender students.,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice, with the national ACLU LGBT & HIV Project.
“DeVos’s Department of Education is wrong on the law and we will continue to defend transgender students under Title IX and the Constitution,” Stangio added, referring to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “Trans students belong in our schools, including on sports teams, and we aren’t backing down from this fight.”
Dan Barrett, ACLU of Connecticut legal director, emphasized that the OCR letter is not a judicial determination.
“This finding, which is not a ruling, is the latest attempt by the Trump administration to try to bully states into carrying out its bigoted anti-trans agenda,” Barrett said. “Trans girls are girls, and they should be treated as such, on the track and in all parts of their lives. Connecticut, including the quasi-government agency of the CIAC, can and should continue to protect trans youth from discrimination.”
According to Transathlete, Connecticut is one of 17 states that allow transgender high school athletes to compete without restrictions. Seven states have restrictions on transgender athletes, and five have no clear policy.