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States clash over St. Johns County transgender case

Transgender student Drew Adams speaks with reporters outside of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, in Atlanta.
Ron Harris
Transgender student Drew Adams speaks with reporters outside of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, in Atlanta.

A lawsuit about whether a transgender male student should have been allowed to use boys’ bathrooms at a Northeast Florida high school has become a battleground for states across the country.

In two briefs filed at a federal appeals court, 40 states and the District of Columbia have chosen sides in the case stemming from a St. Johns County School Board policy that prevented Drew Adams from using boys’ bathrooms at Nease High School.

The latest salvo came Friday, when 22 states and the District of Columbia filed a brief at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that sided with Adams and said the school-board policy violates constitutional equal-protection rights and Title IX, a federal law that bars sex-based discrimination.

“The board’s policy needlessly denies Adams something most people take for granted: the ability to use a public restroom consistent with one’s lived experience of one’s own gender,” the brief said. “The policy singles out transgender students like Adams and forces them either to forgo restroom use or to choose between two other detrimental options: using common restrooms corresponding to their sex assigned at birth or using special single-user restrooms (i.e., those with no specific gender designation).”

Signing on to the brief were the attorneys general in New York, Washington, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Friday’s filing came a month after attorneys general in 18 other states filed a brief that backed the St. Johns County policy and disputed it violated federal law. That brief also pointed to broader implications of the dispute.

“The restroom issue that is presented in this case and similar issues that will inevitably follow involving locker rooms, athletic teams and pronouns involve sensitive policy considerations and myriad competing interests,” the Oct. 26 brief said. “Allowing a transgender student to use the locker room that corresponds to the student’s gender identity has repercussions for other students who may lose the ability to change clothing in private, without being exposed to members of the opposite sex.

"Likewise, allowing a transgender student to compete on an athletic team consistent with the student’s gender identity has repercussions for other students who may lose competitive opportunities or be subjected to an increased risk of injury. And allowing a transgender student to dictate what pronouns other students and school employees must use has significant repercussions for the First Amendment rights of those other students and employees.”

Signing on to the brief were attorneys general in Tennessee, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and West Virginia.

Adams was born a biological female but in eighth grade told his parents he was a transgender male, according to court documents. The lawsuit, which Adams and his mother filed in 2017, stemmed from Nease High School requiring Adams to use a gender-neutral, single-stall bathroom or girls’ bathrooms. Adams graduated from the school as the lawsuit continued.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan, who is based in Jacksonville, ruled in favor of Adams in 2018, prompting the school board to take the case to the Atlanta-based appeals court.

A panel of the court ruled in favor of Adams in July, but the full court subsequently vacated the ruling and said it would hear the case — a move known as holding an “en banc’ hearing. Arguments are expected to be held the week of Feb. 21 in Atlanta.

In addition to the filings by the states, the case has drawn friend-of-the-court briefs from numerous organizations across the country — an indication of the high profile and controversy surrounding transgender-rights issues

In the brief filed Friday, the states supporting Adams said they “share a strong interest in seeing that federal law is properly applied to protect transgender people from discrimination.”

“The unwritten policy of the school board of St. Johns County, Florida, barring Adams from using the boys’ bathroom violates federal statutory and constitutional protections that prohibit such invidious discrimination,” the brief said. “The policy violates Title IX by denying transgender boys and girls access to the same common restrooms that other boys and girls may use. Further, because the policy fails to advance any legitimate interest such as protecting public safety or personal privacy, its only function is to stigmatize a particular group, which violates equal protection.”

But the brief filed last month supporting the St. Johns County board said the “age-old practice of assigning students to restrooms based on biological sex does not violate the Equal Protection Clause or Title IX.”

“Because Congress has not prohibited educational institutions from assigning students to restrooms based on biological sex, this court should leave to Congress and the political process any decision to make a different policy choice,” the brief said.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.