U.S. Supreme Court lets Trump restrictions on transgender troops take effect — for now

In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the Trump administration to proceed with its policy barring certain transgender people from military service, as the justices put on hold lower court rulings blocking the plan on constitutional grounds.

Trump administration order effectively bans most transgender military personnel from serving

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday granted a request to lift injunctions issued by federal judges against President Donald Trump's policy limiting transgender U.S. military members. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed the Trump administration to proceed with its policy barring certain transgender people from military service by putting on hold lower court rulings blocking the plan on constitutional grounds.

The justices did not rule on the merits of the case, but granted the administration's request to lift injunctions issued by federal judges against the policy while legal challenges are working their way through lower Appeal Courts.

Liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor were the No votes. They said they would have kept the injunctions in place blocking the policy, which generally bars transgender people from the U.S. armed forces unless they serve "in their biological sex" and do not seek to undergo a gender transition.

Lawsuits challenging the policy were filed in 2017 by civil liberties and gay and transgender rights groups on behalf of current transgender military service members, including some deployed overseas with decades of experience in the armed forces, and transgender people aspiring to join the military.

Those cases will continue to move through lower courts and could eventually be decided by the Supreme Court. 

Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said the department was pleased with the court's decision.

"The Department of Defence has the authority to create and implement personnel policies it has determined are necessary to best defend our nation," she said.

Kupec said lower court rulings had forced the military to "maintain a prior policy that poses a risk to military effectiveness and lethality."

Several of the groups that sued over the policy said Tuesday they ultimately hoped to win their lawsuits, even though the top court allowed the administration's plan to proceed pending the results of the cases.

Demonstrators gather in New York City's Times Square in July 2017 following Trump's initial ban on transgender troops serving anywhere in the U.S. military. (Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)

"The Trump administration's cruel obsession with ridding our military of dedicated and capable service members because they happen to be transgender defies reason and cannot survive legal review," Jennifer Levi, director of GLAD Transgender Rights, said in a statement.

President Donald Trump initially announced a plan to ban transgender people from the military in 2017, moving to reverse a policy announced a year earlier under former president Barack Obama that allowed them for the first time to serve openly and receive medical care to transition genders.

Trump, whose administration has also taken other steps to limit the rights of transgender Americans, cited the "tremendous medical costs and disruption" of having transgender military personnel.

Trump in March 2018 announced he would endorse a plan by then-defence secretary Jim Mattis that replaced the ban on all transgender people. The revised policy would ban the service of transgender people who seek or have undergone gender transition steps.

It also would ban under certain circumstances transgender people who experience gender dysphoria, a condition the American Psychiatric Association defines as clinically significant distress due to "a conflict between a person's physical or assigned gender" and the individual's gender identity.

Federal courts blocked the administration's policy, finding that it likely violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law. Various injunctions allowed transgender troops to join the armed forces as of Jan. 1, 2018.

The administration then failed to convince federal judges in Washington state, California and the District of Columbia that the revised policy was any more legally sound than the original ban as these judges found that the revised policy was merely an attempt to implement Trump's original ban.

But Trump's revised policy got a boost on Jan. 4 when a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., sided with his administration and overturned the injunction issued by the judge there, saying the updated policy was no longer a blanket ban. That ruling had a limited effect, because other injunctions covering the whole nation remained in place.

Though another injunction issued by a judge in Maryland was not on appeal, the administration said in court papers the high court's action would apply to that one, too.

In asking the Supreme Court to review the cases, the Justice Department said Mattis and other military leaders determined that Obama's policy "posed too great a risk to military effectiveness and lethality." Mattis announced his resignation as Pentagon chief in December over other differences with Trump.

A 2016 Pentagon-commissioned study completed before Obama acted to allow transgender troops found that any impact on cost or military readiness would be marginal. It estimated that there were around 2,450 transgender personnel actively serving in the military at the time.

Not all transgender people experience gender dysphoria, according to the American Psychiatric Association, which opposes a transgender military ban.

With files from The Associated Press