A federal judge in Fort Worth has blocked the Obama administration from enforcing rules requiring public schools to let transgender students use bathrooms and locker rooms that conform to their gender identity.
Responding to a lawsuit filed by Texas and joined by 12 other states, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor issued a preliminary injunction late Sunday, ruling that the directive contradicted existing law and regulations and was issued without meeting federal notice and comment requirements.
Issued hours before most Texas public school students began the 2016-17 school year, the injunction applies nationwide, but O’Connor said states that have chosen to accommodate transgender students “will not be impacted.”
“Those states who do not want to be covered by this injunction can easily avoid doing so by state law,” the judge added.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Monday that he was pleased that O’Connor “ruled against the Obama administration’s latest illegal federal overreach.”
“This president is attempting to rewrite the laws enacted by the elected representatives of the people, and is threatening to take away federal funding from schools to force them to conform. That cannot be allowed to continue,” Paxton said in a statement.
The Obama administration is expected to ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the ruling.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration’s next step will be determined by the Justice Department, adding that lawyers were confident federal officials had the legal authority to issue the transgender guidance to the nation’s public schools May 13.
“I recognize that there are people who are eager to play politics with an issue like this just a few months before a national election,” Earnest said during Monday’s press briefing. “But our goal has been from the beginning to provide for the safety and security and dignity of students all across the country.”
Civil rights and gay rights leaders said they expected the U.S. Supreme Court to ultimately recognize that federal law protects transgender students from discrimination.
“Judge O’Connor’s decision … puts thousands of transgender students at even greater risk of marginalization, harassment and discrimination,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign. “All students, regardless of their gender identity, deserve to be able to learn in an environment free from discrimination.”
The ruling had minimal effect on Austin-area schools.
The Austin district, which has a policy against discrimination based on gender identity or expression, did not create a specific policy on bathroom access, electing instead to continue handling such matters as they arise at each campus, typically by making single-stall faculty restrooms available to transgender students, spokesman Jacob Barrett said.
The Round Rock district did not enact a transgender policy in response to the federal guidelines, and officials expected no changes after the judge’s ruling, spokesman Corey Ryan said.
“Being caught in the middle of all this with the state and federal governments, we kind of stayed the course,” Ryan said. “Any time a student or parents are concerned about safety or access to facilities, we have staff on the campuses work with parents to find the best solution that meets their needs.”
The Hays school district also did not change its policies to conform with the federal directives, electing instead to continue allowing transgender students to use bathrooms in the nurse’s office or administrative offices, spokesman Tim Savoy said.
“It’s different than what the Obama directive said, but what we were doing has been working in our district for the rare occasions it’s come up,” Savoy said.
In an Aug. 12 hearing in Fort Worth, lawyers for Texas told O’Connor that an injunction was necessary to thwart the Obama administration’s attempt to override the will of local school districts by imposing its definition of “gender identity” on all public schools.
“Schools are facing the potential loss of funding for simply exercising the authority to implement the policies that best protect their students, ” Paxton told O’Connor in a brief. “Every employer is now being threatened for not bowing to anyone that identifies as the opposite sex.”
U.S. Justice Department lawyers argued that federal guidelines properly included transgender people under existing laws that forbid discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion and national origin.
The guidelines, they told O’Connor, represented the federal government’s evolving interpretation of ambiguous anti-discrimination laws found in Title IX, the 1972 federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in public schools.
In siding with Texas and the other states, however, O’Connor said the language in Title IX was developed at a time when a person’s sex was defined by the anatomical differences between males and females.
“It cannot be disputed that the plain meaning of the term sex … meant the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth,” said O’Connor, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.
The preliminary injunction will remain in effect until the judge can hold a trial to rule on the merits of the case.
First, however, the Obama administration is expected to ask an appeals court to lift the injunction and allow enforcement of the transgender rules.