Court rules in favor of transgender student barred from using boys’ bathroom

“At the heart of this appeal is whether equal protection and Title IX can protect transgender students from school bathroom policies that prohibit them from affirming their gender,” wrote Judge Henry F. Floyd in the majority opinion joined by Judge James A. Wynn. “We join a growing consensus of courts in holding that the answer is resoundingly yes.”

Grimm, who was designated female at birth but identifies as male, said the decision should give hope to transgender people nationwide.

“All transgender students should have what I was denied: the opportunity to be seen for who we are by our schools and our government,” he said in a statement. “Today’s decision is an incredible affirmation for not just me, but for trans youth around the country.”

The Wednesday ruling shows the ripple effects of the Supreme Court’s landmark victory for gay and transgender workers in June, which said a federal law forbidding discrimination protects people of all gender and sexual identities.

At the time of the decision, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch went to great lengths to assert that the scope of the ruling was narrow, specifically writing in the majority opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County that it should not influence long-debated bathroom policies. But the reasoning in the decision has already been applied by lower courts affirming transgender students’ access to restrooms that match their gender identity. The ruling in Grimm’s case — which liberally cited the Bostock opinion — is the latest example of its reach.

The decision also upheld a lower court’s ruling that discrimination against transgender people is subject to heightened judicial scrutiny, an important precedential holding for the 4th Circuit.

“Transgender students belong in our schools,” Joshua Block, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents Grimm in court, said in a statement. “The court once again ruled that school’s obligation to create an environment that is safe and welcoming for all students includes transgender students.”

Grimm uses men’s restrooms in public places and is recognized as male by his family and medical providers.

School board attorneys previously defended their restroom policy by saying it effectively accommodates Grimm’s discomfort with using the women’s bathroom while looking out for the privacy interests of students and parents who should not have to “share a restroom with someone from the opposite physiological sex.”

“School personnel always treated Grimm with respect,” attorney David P. Corrigan told the court in May, also arguing that Grimm’s claims should be nullified because he has graduated from Gloucester High School. “They accommodated his request to be called by his new name and to use male pronouns.”

Corrigan declined to comment on Wednesday’s ruling, saying they are “reviewing the decision.”

Judge Paul V. Niemeyer agreed with the school board, writing in a dissent that because the law prohibits discrimination only between people who are “similarly situated,” Grimm does not require the same treatment as those who are born biologically male when it comes to using the boys’ bathroom.

The ruling follows five years of litigation in a high-profile legal battle surrounding Grimm, who sued Gloucester High as a sophomore in 2015 for denying him access to the boys’ bathroom. Grimm, now 21, graduated from high school three years ago. But the case remained at the forefront of the fight for transgender students’ rights as it dragged through the courts.

The argument reached the Supreme Court in 2017 but was canceled when President Trump reversed an Obama administration rule that directed schools to allow students to use restrooms that correspond with their gender identity. After years of litigation in lower courts, the federal appeals court Wednesday offered a decisive ruling Grimm’s attorney hopes will provide relief after years of dispute.

“This case has reaffirmed what we have been saying for years and years,” Block said. “When you are discriminating against someone because they are transgender, you are inherently discriminating against them in part based on their sex.”

PFLAG, an organization for LGTBQ people and their families, issued a statement celebrating Wednesday’s ruling.

“Together with his legal team at the ACLU, he demonstrated that a transgender person is a person, that their gender is real, and that anti-trans discrimination unconstitutionally prevents a transgender student from participating fully in their education,” it said.

Samantha Schmidt and Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.

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