The school district said it had been following guidance from state officials in creating a separate locker room.
ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday that a transgender high school student can bring an equal protection claim under the state constitution after his school denied him access to the boys’ locker room.
Judge Peter Reyes penned the court’s majority opinion, finding that school districts are subject to more stringent anti-discrimination language than employers under the Minnesota Human Rights Act when it comes to restroom or locker room facilities.
“Under a plain reading, the MHRA’s education provision protects the rights of any student to use locker rooms without discrimination,” Reyes wrote.
“The MHRA prohibits discrimination ‘in the full utilization of or benefit from any educational… services rendered,’” he continued. “Because schools provide locker rooms in connection with physical-education coursework and activities, locker rooms fall within the broadly described ‘services rendered’ by schools.”
The student, identified in court records as N.H., attended Coon Rapids High School in the northwest Twin Cities metro area for two years, during which he was on the swim team. The school, according to N.H.’s pleadings, waffled on whether to allow him to use the boys’ locker room, and at one point threatened to discipline him for using the locker room rather than a separate, adjacent locker room with what the school district called “enhanced privacy.”
In N.H.’s original complaint, filed in February 2019, he and his mother alleged that being singled out by the school district led to two hospitalizations for mental health issues, including after “a public debate during which the board heard testimony from members of the public affiliated with hate groups.” Those incidents, the complaint said, led his parents and care providers to send him to a different district to finish high school.
Anoka-Hennepin School District, which operates Coon Rapids High, did not deny separating N.H. from other students because of his transgender identity, but argued that he could not state either a Minnesota Human Rights Act claim or one under the state constitution’s equal protection clause. It based its analysis, Reyes wrote, on the Minnesota Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Goins v. West Group, which found that a workplace rule tying bathroom use to genitalia did not discriminate against a transgender employee on the basis of sexual orientation.
The appeals court rejected that idea Monday, finding that Goins was not binding precedent for discrimination claims in the educational sphere.
“Goins does not cite to, does not interpret, and does not analyze the MHRA’s education provision,” Reyes wrote. “Nor does it interpret the MHRA’s education provision’s language of ‘full utilization,’ ‘benefit,’ or ‘services rendered’ in ‘any educational institution,’ language not found in the MHRA’s employment provision.”
Reyes instead looked to federal caselaw, agreeing with N.H. that “ the overwhelming majority of federal courts that have recently examined transgender education-discrimination claims under Title IX have concluded that preventing a transgender student from using a school restroom or locker room consistent with the student’s gender identity violates Title IX.”
He also found that N.H.’s constitutional claim need only be subjected to an intermediate-scrutiny standard, and that the Anoka County District Court had erred in applying strict scrutiny.
The court was not unanimous. While Reyes was joined in the majority by Judge Denise Reilly, Judge Matthew Johnson penned a dissent in which he found that Goins was applicable and pointed to the recommendations of several administrative agencies as evidence that the district had acted reasonably.
“In the absence of any clear statement of law, and in light of conflicting interests, the Anoka-Hennepin School District responded in a reasonable and balanced manner,” he wrote.
Anoka-Hennepin spokesman Jim Skelly said the school district was reviewing the decision and considering its next steps. He pointed out that the district had been following guidance from state officials in creating the separate locker room.
“The district believed that it was following guidance, so it’s not like the district was challenging guidance from the state or from other sources,” Skelly said. “Our goal is to have a district free from discrimination… that’s what we believed we were doing in that situation, but the court had a different opinion.”
N.H.’s cause was taken up by the St. Paul-based nonprofit Gender Justice and the Minnesota branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Both organizations, along with N.H., issued a joint statement after the ruling was released, including comment from the plaintiff.
“I never want any student to experience the discrimination and cruelty I experienced from the adults at my school,” N.H., now an adult, said in the statement. “It means a lot to see that courts protect transgender students like me. Today’s decision makes it very clear that segregating trans students doesn’t just dehumanize us, it violates our legal rights.”
The civil rights groups also pointed to the school district’s checkered history with anti-LGBTQ bullying. At the time N.H.’s lawsuit was filed, the district was operating under a consent decree with the Department of Justice requiring it to change its treatment of LGBT students after four of them committed suicide in the space of a year.
“It is shameful that Anoka-Hennepin School District had to be sued once again over its discrimination against LGBTQ students,” ACLU attorney David McKinney said. “Hopefully, the district will now do the right thing and embrace transgender-inclusive policies, rather than ostracizing students and depriving them of equal access to education.”
Skelly acknowledged that the consent decree had been in its final years during N.H.’s tenure at the school, but pointed out that the federal government had found the district’s performance satisfactory.
“According to the Department of Justice, the district satisfied the terms of the consent decree,” he said. “The bottom line is, we want the schools to be safe and welcoming for all students. That’s our goal, overall.”