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Monday, April 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Parents group and Iowa school district settle gender policy suit

The parents claimed the school district policy violated the First Amendment rights of students who do not “respect” another student’s gender identity.

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — What remains of a federal lawsuit has been settled by an Iowa school district and a group of parents who challenged the district’s policy respecting students’ gender nonconformity.

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

The eastern Iowa Linn-Mar Community School District’s policy accommodated “transgender students regarding names/pronouns, restroom and locker facilities, overnight accommodations on school trips, and participation in activities.” 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.

In a mixed decision handed down this past September, an Eighth Circuit panel said the parents won their battle when Iowa Legislature outlawed such policies, and those issues were moot as a result.

The appeals court, however, preserved one 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 appeals court 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.

Although that issue was tentatively scheduled to go to trial in 2025, the parties reached a settlement in which the school district “rescinded and will not reinstate” the challenged policy that prohibits “[a]n intentional and/or persistent refusal by staff or students to respect a student’s gender identity.”

In exchange, the plaintiffs agreed to drop the suit. Linn-Mar will pay $20,000 for the plaintiffs’ legal fees.

“Parents Defending Education is thrilled that Linn-Mar Community School District has agreed to respect the First Amendment rights of its students going forward,” Parents Defending Education president Nicole Neily said in a statement. “This settlement sends a clear message that student speech may not be compelled by administrators when it comes to gender issues — and a reminder to districts that viewpoint discrimination in public schools is wrong, full stop.”

In a separate statement, the Linn-Mar School Board said the “the time and resources of the district are better spent looking forward" than continuing to defend a lawsuit about a policy that has not been in effect for nearly a year. It added the school board “emphasizes its ongoing commitment to support all learners and to provide a safe and affirming school environment for transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming students and their families within the parameters of the law.”

As a measure of how intense the fight over this issue is not just in Iowa but nationally, 66 amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs were filed with the appellate court, including 18 states. All but five opposed the Linn-Mar policy.

U.S. Circuit Judge Steven Colloton, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote the Eighth Circuit opinion joined by U.S. Circuit Judges William Benton, a George W. Bush appointee, and Jane Kelly, a Barack Obama appointee.

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Categories / Courts, Education, First Amendment, Government, Regional

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