NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) — After enacting several laws this year targeting transgender people, Tennessee faces its second legal challenge – this time, over a so-called bathroom bill that applies to public schools.
The bill, which opens public schools to civil litigation if they accommodate transgender people who wish to use restrooms that correspond with their gender identity, was signed into law by Republican Governor Bill Lee in May.
“By bringing Tennessee to court, we are maintaining our commitment to protecting our community’s most vulnerable,” Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David said on Twitter. “I want all transgender and non-binary children across the country to know: You matter. Your legal rights should be respected.”
Tennessee Attorney General's Office spokesperson Samantha Fisher said the office had no comment but was reviewing the lawsuit. The governor's spokesperson Laine Arnold did not return a request for comment.
Last month, civil rights advocates scored a tentative victory when a federal judge temporarily blocked a separate state law requiring businesses to post signs letting patrons know if they allow transgender people to use the bathroom facilities that correspond with their gender identity. Violators would have faced penalties, including up to six months in jail.
Republican-led states across the country passed a slew of anti-LGBTQ bills this year, but no state’s leaders have gone further than Tennessee's in enacting new laws targeting transgender people, the Associated Press reported in May.
Under the state’s law addressing public school restrooms, a person can sue a school district to recover monetary damages for all “psychological, emotional, and physical harm suffered” if they encounter a person of the opposite sex in a bathroom or locker room or if they are required to share a sleeping space with a person of the opposite sex.
The law defines sex as a person's “immutable biological sex as determined by anatomy and genetics existing at the time of birth.”
The latest lawsuit, filed Tuesday by the Human Rights Campaign on behalf of two transgender children, ages 6 and 14. It alleges that the state law violates Title IX, the 1972 federal law that protects against sex discrimination in education.
In June, the U.S. Department of Education expanded its interpretation of Title IX protections to include transgender and gay students. Schools found to have violated Title IX can face a range of penalties as severe as a total loss of federal education funding.
Just weeks later, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Virginia school board’s request to reinstate its transgender bathroom ban. But the court's decision did not set a national precedent, meaning the Tennessee case must still move through the court system.
“Courts have time-and-again ruled against these dangerous and discriminatory laws and we are going to fight in court to strike down this one and protect the civil rights of transgender and non-binary young people,” David, the human rights organization’s president, said in a statement.
One of the children, a 14-year-old identified as Alex, had already been forced to either use the school nurse’s private bathroom or the restroom that corresponded to his gender assigned at birth when he came out as transgender in seventh grade.
“Both options were alienating and isolating for Alex who instead stopped drinking liquids at school to avoid having to use the facilities,” the Human Rights Campaign said in a statement.
Alex had been allowed to use the boy’s restroom while attending a private school during 8th grade, but now that he is starting public high school, “he will again be forced into using restrooms that are stigmatizing or forgo using the bathroom altogether,” the group added.
“It stresses me out that I’ll have to deal with this all over again at my new school,” the boy said in a statement.
In 6-year-old Ariel’s case, her kindergarten was receptive and understanding of her gender identity and allowed her to use the girl’s restroom, the lawsuit says.
But, as with Alex, Ariel will have to choose between using the boy’s restroom or the nurse’s bathroom when she starts the first grade, despite only ever using the girl’s restroom.
Because she is so young, Ariel doesn’t understand the law’s consequences or why she’s being told to use the boy’s bathroom, the Human Rights Campaign said.
“We are determined that a brutal legislative session that especially targeted transgender and non-binary youth will not be the last word,” Chris Sanders, executive director of Tennessee Equality Project, said in a statement. “Justice demands that we fight for the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.”
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