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Federal Judge Blocks Enforcement of West Virginia Anti-Transgender Sports Law

A federal judge in West Virginia blocked the state from enforcing a law that prohibits transgender youth from participating on sports teams that don't align with their "biological sex."

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (CN) — An 11-year-old transgender athlete should be allowed to join the girls' cross-country and track teams in middle school, a federal judge in West Virginia ruled on Wednesday.

Becky Pepper-Jackson’s dream of joining the sports teams when she starts middle school this fall was dashed earlier this year after Republican Governor Jim Justice signed a law that prohibits transgender girls from playing on girl's sports teams.

House Bill 3293 bans transgender girls and women from participating on girls' or womens' school sports teams at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary level. The statute mandates that school athletic teams must be designated based on "biological sex,” a term that refers to a person’s anatomy, genetics or hormones perceived at the time they are born. 

The law bars transgender girls and women from participating in sports "where competitive skill or contact is involved."

Justice said in a news conference that his signing of the bill was “the right thing to do," but U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin said in his 15-page opinion that he had been provided with "scant evidence" that the state's law addresses any problem at all.

Goodwin granted Pepper-Jackson's request for a preliminary injunction to halt enforcement of the law and ruled that while the case is pending she will be allowed to "sign up for and participate in school athletics in the same way as her girl classmates."

“A fear of the unknown and discomfort with the unfamiliar have motivated many of the most malignant harms committed by our country’s governments on their own citizens, “ Goodwin wrote. “Out of fear of those less like them, the powerful have made laws that restricted who could attend what schools, who could work certain jobs, who could marry whom, and even how people can practice their religion."

The crux of Wednesday’s ruling is that Goodwin found Pepper-Jackson has a likelihood of success in demonstrating that the sports ban is unconstitutional and that it violates Title IX. 

"When the government distinguishes between different groups of people, those distinctions must be supported by compelling reasons," the Bill Clinton appointee wrote.

Goodwin said that the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in recognition that classfying human beings "in ways that officially sanction harm is antithetical to democracy."

"Accordingly, the courts are most juberous of any law — state or federal — that treats groups of people differently," the judge wrote.

An with the American Civil Liberties Union filed the underlying lawsuit on Pepper-Jackson's behalf in May, listing, among other defendants, the West Virginia State Board of Education. Pepper-Jackson is also represented by attorneys with Lambda Legal and Cooley LLP.

“A federal district judge just blocked the government from enforcing a cruel, unconstitutional law that would have prevented our client, Becky, from participating in school sports this year,” a spokesperson for the state’s chapter of the ACLU said in a statement on Wednesday. 

The ACLU called the ruling a victory for both their client and all kids in West Virginia.

“I am excited to know that I will be able to try out for the girls’ cross-country team and follow in the running shoes of my family,” Becky Pepper-Jackson said in a statement on Wednesday. “It hurt that the State of West Virginia would try to block me from pursuing my dreams. I just want to play.” 

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Categories / Civil Rights, Education, Law, Sports

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