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Virginia judge rejects push to block protections for transgender students

A judge in Lynchburg ruled conservative groups and parents don’t have standing to challenge the state school board’s inclusive transgender policies.

LYNCHBURG, Va. (CN) — Following a combative hearing last week in Lynchburg Circuit Court, a Virginia judge on Tuesday threw out a lawsuit seeking to block the state’s education department from implementing policies that bolster protections for transgender students. 

Several parents and Richmond-based conservative groups sued the Virginia Department of Education in an effort to prevent the state from implementing transgender-inclusive policies in the upcoming school year. 

The department’s model policies, which were finalized and adopted in March, provide guidance to public schools on how to treat transgender and nonbinary students. 

In addition to instructing teachers to address students using names and pronouns that match their gender identities, the policies require schools to allow students to use the bathrooms that align with their gender identities.

According to the education department, the policies “address common issues regarding transgender students in accordance with evidence-based best practices and include information, guidance, procedures.”

The groups disputing the policies, including the Christian Action Network, Founding Freedoms Law Center and the Family Foundation of Virginia, claim the rules infringe on the First Amendment rights of teachers and parents. 

They also contend that the department failed to follow administrative procedures by not properly responding to their concerns during the 30-day-public comment period.

But Judge J. Frederick Watson dismissed the case Tuesday, ruling the groups lacked standing to challenge the policies. 

“Their dissatisfaction with the VDOE’s response to their comments does not create an immediate, pecuniary, or substantial interest in this litigation, but only a remote or indirect interest,” Watson wrote in a six-page opinion. 

Under Code of Virginia statute §22.1-23.3, each local school board is required to interpret and adopt policies that are consistent with, or more comprehensive than, the state education department’s policies. 

Watson found that because the policies amount to an interpretive “guidance document,” the plaintiffs in the case needed to demonstrate that they were “aggrieved” in order to successfully challenge them. 

The groups failed to do so, the judge said, noting that the policies are directed toward local school boards rather than the plaintiffs.

“Because the model policies are directed only to school boards, they cannot affect or aggrieve anyone other than the school boards,” Watson wrote. "The model policies cannot affect or aggrieve someone if the local school board has already adopted similar policies before the development of any model policies.”

Virginia Delegate Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, wrote the bill that led to the model policies. 

In an interview following last week’s contentious hearing on the case, Simon told Courthouse News that school boards that decline to adopt the policies will not face penalties, punitive action or a withholding of funds. 

“The language is proscriptive, shall do it, not 'may' or 'use it if you want to.' There’s instruction for the school boards to pass policies as protective of students as the model policies. What happens if you don't? That's a good question,” Simon said. 

Simon said the goal of the legislation "was to create standards and framework for school systems to understand and implement policies which provide a welcoming and supportive environment for all students, here they can focus on learning and growing and not be subjected to bullying or degradation that impairs their ability to learn – from students, teachers and administration.”  

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, also a Democrat, applauded Watson’s decision in a statement on Tuesday.

“Every single child who goes to school in the commonwealth deserves a positive, safe, nurturing learning environment, without the fear of discrimination or harassment simply because of who they are,” he said.

Herring, whose office defended the state in the consolidated lawsuits, added, “We must do all we can to ensure that transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming students feel supported and protected and this model policy gives school divisions the roadmap to doing just that in their schools.”

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Categories / Civil Rights, Education, Regional

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