(CN) – A federal judge on Thursday rejected Ohio’s push to remain one of two states that bar transgender people from making changes to their birth certificates, a policy they say exposes them to discrimination and threats.
U.S. District Judge Michael Watson, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled that the claims of three transgender women and a man who sued two state agencies in Columbus federal court had merit. The ruling means that the plaintiffs can move forward with claims that the Ohio policy violates their civil rights.
“Assuming the allegations in the complaint are true, particularly plaintiffs’ assertion that ‘gender identity is the critical determinant of sex,’ the court is not convinced that Ohio law prohibits plaintiffs’ request,” Watson wrote.
In March 2018, Stacie Ray, Basil Argento, Ashley Breda, and a Jane Doe plaintiff sued officials with the Ohio Department of Health and the state registrar of the Office of Vital Statistics over their refusal to change the policy.
Ray says the policy violates equal protection, due process, and free speech rights under the First and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.
She said Thursday that she was looking forward to having her day in court.
“It is frustrating that it will take a lawsuit to have my state recognize me for who I really am. But I’m confident that, in the end, our fundamental right to live as our true and authentic selves will prevail and that no one else in Ohio will have to endure the horrific experiences I and my fellow plaintiffs have endured moving forward,” Ray said in a statement.
ACLU Ohio Legal Director Freda Levenson said Watson had agreed that Ohio was an “outlier.” She noted that it is one of only two states that don’t allow transgender people to correct their birth certificates. She said the ruling gave her confidence that the court understood the facts of the case.
“This is a victory that really paves the way for us to go ahead on the merits of the case,” Levenson said in a phone interview. “The judge recognized that we have a claim that Ohio’s policy violates the plaintiffs’ right to privacy because every time they are forced to disclose this birth certificate, it reveals their transgender status.”
The office of Attorney General Dave Yost deferred comment to the Ohio Department of Health, which said it could not comment on pending litigation.
At the time Ray filed the lawsuit, Ohio, Tennessee and Kansas were the only states in the nation that did not allow changes to birth certificates. However, a Kansas court ordered state officials to begin correcting birth certificates after the state entered into a consent decree this past June, leaving just Ohio and Tennessee as holdouts.
Ohio argued in its motion to dismiss that the plaintiffs did not have a constitutional right to change gender markers on their birth certificates.
The state said it was required to reject applications to change birth certificates because the documents only note an individual’s sex and not their gender identity. Birth records could only be corrected if there was an error made at the time of birth, the state added.
Watson disagreed in his 33-page opinion and order, and found that the plaintiffs’ allegations made clear that the policy put them at “risk of bodily harm.”
Ray claimed she was forced to quit a job after only two weeks because she was worried about the threat of violence. That was after a human resources worker asked her about her birth certificate in front of other new hires. After the incident, Ray says a female co-worker told her that if she ever saw Ray in the women’s restroom, she would “beat her ass.”
Watson noted that the plaintiffs had alleged that the policy outs transgender Ohioans each time they are asked to show their birth certificates. The judge found that the plaintiffs had done enough at this stage of the litigation to demonstrate the policy “implicated the release of personal information” that violates their privacy rights.
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which advocates for LGBTQ rights, has also challenged the policy in Tennessee. Lambda attorney Kara Inglehart said that she hoped that the state would ultimately recognize the rights of all transgender Ohioans.
“The judge understands the importance of a trans person getting to decide how people know about their identity,” Inglehart said in a phone interview.