Judge in Texas temporarily blocks Obama's transgender rules
Posted August 22, 2016 2:17 p.m. EDT
Updated August 22, 2016 4:28 p.m. EDT
AUSTIN, Texas — A federal judge in Texas has blocked the Obama administration's order that requires public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity.
In a temporary injunction signed Sunday, U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor ruled that the federal education law known as Title IX "is not ambiguous" about sex being defined as "the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth."
The judge said his order, which applies nationwide, was not about the policy issues of transgender rights but his conclusion that federal officials simply did not follow rules that required an opportunity for comment before such directives are issued.
"This case presents the difficult issue of balancing the protection of students' rights and that of personal privacy ... while ensuring that no student is unnecessarily marginalized while attending school," he wrote.
The ruling was the second recent setback for transgender advocates. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Virginia school board can block for now a transgender male from using the boys' restroom while justices decide whether to fully intervene.
Texas and 12 other states challenged the White House directive as unconstitutional.
North Carolina is embroiled in a separate lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice over transgender bathroom use, tied to the state's House Bill 2, which also excludes the LGBT community from anti-discrimination protections.
Supporters of House Bill 2 hailed O'Connor's ruling.
"The federal court decision bolsters the efforts of Governor McCrory, along with 22 other states, to protect the privacy of families and children in our school bathrooms, locker rooms and shower facilities," Josh Ellis, spokesman for Gov. Pat McCrory, said in a statement. "We’re also pleased that a federal court has sided with Governor McCrory’s position that the Obama administration has overstepped its authority by bypassing Congress and the courts."
"The University of North Carolina and school districts across the state, such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, can no longer chose to ignore HB2," Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of North Carolina Values Coalition, said in a statement. "(They) must now comply with North Carolina’s law that clearly requires local boards of education and state agencies to make sure that multi-occupancy bathrooms or changing facilities are designated for and used only by students based on their biological sex."
O'Connor also sided with Republican state leaders who argued that schools should have been allowed to weigh in before the White House directive was announced in May.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, had argued that halting the Obama order before school began was necessary because districts risked losing federal education dollars if they did not comply. Federal officials did not explicitly make that threat upon issuing the directive, although they also never ruled out the possibility.
"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," Paxton said. "That cannot be allowed to continue, which is why we took action to protect states and school districts."
The Justice Department issued a brief statement saying it was disappointed in the ruling and was now reviewing its options.
The ruling does not prohibit schools that allow transgender students to use the facilities of their choice from continuing to do so.
Paul Castillo is a Dallas attorney for the gay rights group Lambda Legal, which had urged the court to let the White House directive stand. He said the latest ruling was a continuation of attacks on transgender people.
"I think today is going to be a hard day for transgender students," Castillo said. "The decision is certainly emotional and certainly an attack on transgender students' dignity."
The federal government issued the mandate days after the Justice Department sued North Carolina over House Bill 2. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch likened the law to the policies of racial segregation. Republicans have argued such laws are common-sense privacy safeguards.
The Obama administration had told the court that recipients of federal education dollars were "clearly on notice" that anti-discrimination polices must be followed. Texas alone gets roughly $10 billion in federal education funds.
The lawsuit was filed in May by Texas, Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Utah and Georgia, and the Republican governors of Maine, Mississippi and Kentucky. Two small school districts in Arizona and Texas, which have fewer than 600 students combined and no transgender persons on their campuses, also joined the effort to prevent the directive from being enforced.
Last year, O'Connor granted an order that temporarily blocked federal rules that would have expanded medical leave benefits to some gay couples.