Transgender rights in U.S. take a 'detour' with Supreme Court decision

The U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday that it will not hear the case of a transgender teenager who is fighting his school to use the boy's bathroom on March 28 as planned. Instead the case is going back to a lower court. The decision comes after President Donald Trump rolled back guidance to schools.

Supreme Court decides to refer March 28 case back to lower court after Trump overturns guidance on bathrooms

Gavin Grimm, photographed in August, 2015, is the transgender teenager from Virginia whose lawsuit against his school was poised to be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court on March 28. The court decided March 6 to send the case back to a lower court. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

The fight for transgender rights in the U.S. took a "detour" Monday, when the Supreme Court decided to cancel what would have been a landmark hearing set for later in the month.

Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student in Virginia who was born female and identifies as male, sued his school board after he was barred from using the boy's bathroom in 2014.

On March 28, he was supposed to get his day in the land's highest court.

But instead, the Supreme Court has chosen to punt the case back down to a lower court and that means the justices won't be making what could have been a historic ruling on transgender rights any time soon.

"This is a detour, not the end of the road, and we'll continue to fight for Gavin and other transgender people to ensure that they are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve," Joshua Block, Grimm's lead lawyer, said in a news release issued shortly after the Supreme Court announced its decision.

Block, who is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a call with reporters that it was "not what we had hoped for today," but that he is not disheartened.

Students left in limbo

"I think that this is justice delayed, not justice denied," he said.

Grimm, who found out about the decision while he was in class, was also on the call and said that students like him are in limbo because of the Supreme Court's decision.

"It's disappointing that this is going to drag this conversation out even longer," he said. "But I am still as passionate and happy to be doing this as ever."
The use of bathrooms by transgender people remains a controversial issue in the United States and there are numerous legal battles being fought in states like North Carolina, where this rally was held on April 11, 2016. (Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

"If it took 10 years I'd stick with it," said Grimm, who will graduate this spring. He is still banned from the boy's bathroom and uses a restroom in the nurse's office.

The case now goes back to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The reason the Supreme Court reversed course is because of President Trump's move on Feb. 22 to revoke guidance from the Obama administration. Last May Barack Obama's administration outlined to school districts how they should treat transgender students and what obligations they have to ensure they are legally protected under Title IX.

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funds and the Obama White House interpreted that law to mean that transgender students are covered by it.

The guidance told schools that transgender youth should have access to bathrooms and locker rooms that are consistent with their gender identity.

Grimm has no regrets

Thirteen states challenged Obama's guidance in court, disagreeing that Title IX bans discrimination based on gender identity. Meanwhile, Grimm's case was still making its way through the courts.

When the Fourth Circuit Appeals Court ruled in Grimm's favour last year, it partly relied on Obama's guidance for its reasons. When Trump scrapped the guidance, the Supreme Court asked both sides for new filings on how the case should proceed.

Lawyers for the school board and Grimm urged the justices to go ahead, but the school board suggested a delay to allow for the Trump administration to weigh in on it.
In this photo taken in May, 2016, signage is seen outside a restroom at a hotel in North Carolina which has been at the centre of a legal battle over transgender rights. (Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

A delay would also give more time for Trump's pick to fill a vacancy on the court, Neil Gorsuch, to be confirmed by the Senate and get on the bench. Hearings on his nomination are scheduled to begin March 20.

The Fourth Circuit will now handle the case again, in the new context of there being no federal guidance on how to treat transgender students.

Grimm's lawyer said he expects the court to ask for written briefs and there could be another round of oral arguments. The court isn't scheduled to sit next until May.

Block expressed confidence that the laws are on their side, despite Trump's move to roll back the protections for transgender youth.

"Title IX is the same today as it was yesterday and we are confident the courts will agree with us on that," said Block.

Trump's education secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions said it was appropriate to rescind the guidance because disputes over school policies are best solved at the local and state levels. They suggested that Obama's interpretation of Title IX was not the correct one but said schools should ensure that transgender students are able to learn in a safe environment.

Grimm's environment is a stressful one, he said, given that he is dealing with this ongoing legal battle in his final year of high school, which is already a stressful one for any student. It takes attention away from focusing on his grades and college applications, he explained, but he is committed to seeing this case through to its end.

"I never wanted to be in this fight but I don't have any regrets," he said. "It's been totally worth it."


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