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U.S. Education Department to Publish Official Interpretation of Title IX Covering Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination

Posted on: June 16th, 2021 by Art Leonard No Comments

Following up on President Joe Biden’s Executive Orders of January 20 and March 8, 2021, and a March 26 Memorandum by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Education announced on June 16 that it is publishing a “Notice of Interpretation” in the Federal Register confirming that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits educational institutions that received federal funding from discriminating against students “on the basis of sex,” applies to discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity (transgender status).

The announcement came just a year after the Supreme Court interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination “because of sex,” to include discrimination because of sexual orientation or transgender status, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia.  In Bostock, the Court combined cases from the 2nd, 6th and 11th Circuit Courts of Appeals involving two gay men and a transgender woman, and voted 6-3 that any discrimination against an employee because they are gay, lesbian or transgender is necessarily at least in part because of their sex.  President Donald J. Trump’s first appointee to the Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch, wrote the opinion for the Court by assignment from Chief Justice John Roberts, who joined the opinion together with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Although the Bostock decision directly interpreted only Title VII, its reasoning clearly applied to any law that prohibits discrimination “because of sex” or “on the basis of sex,” as the Education Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Suzanne B. Goldberg, wrote in the Notice issued on June 16.  In his January 20 Executive Order, President Biden directed all Executive Branch agencies to consider the implications of the Bostock decision for their policies and programs, and to apply the reasoning of that decision to the extent it was consistent with purposes of the particular policies and programs.  His March 8 Executive Order explicitly referenced sexual orientation and gender identity in “guaranteeing an educational environment free from discrimination on the basis of sex.”

“After reviewing the text of Title IX and Federal courts’ interpretation of Title IX,” wrote Goldberg, “the Department has concluded that the same clarity [that the Supreme Court found under Title VII] exists for Title IX.  That is, Title IX prohibits recipients of Federal financial assistance from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in their education programs and activities.  The Department has also concluded for the reasons described in this Notice that, to the extent other interpretations may exist, this is the best interpretation of the statute.”

The Notice listed “numerous” lower federal court decisions that were issued over the past year taking this position, including the most recent ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in the Gavin Grimm case, concerning a transgender boy who was denied access to restroom facilities at a Virginia high school.  The school board in that case filed a petition seeking Supreme Court review on February 24, which would present the Supreme Court with a ready vehicle to weigh in on this issue if it wants to do so.

Reversing the position taken by the Education Department during the Trump Administration, the Notice announces that the Department will investigate sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination allegations by students.  “This includes allegations of individuals being harassed, disciplined in a discriminatory manner, excluded from, denied equal access to, or subjected to sex stereotyping in academic or extracurricular opportunities and other education programs or activities, denied the benefits of such programs or activities, or otherwise treated differently because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” wrote Goldberg.  She pointed out that a determination whether Title IX was violated will depend on the facts of individual cases, and of course Title IX applies only to schools that receive federal funds.

In a footnote, Goldberg pointed out that “educational institutions that are controlled by a religious organization are exempt from Title IX to the extent that compliance would not be consistent with the organization’s religious tenets,” citing 20 U.S.C. section 1681(a)(3).  There is a pending federal lawsuit against the Education Department by a group of students from such religious schools claiming that this section violates the 1st Amendment Establishment Clause.  Religious schools have moved to intervene as parties in that lawsuit, claiming that the government may not sufficiently defend their exemption.  The Justice Department has opposed their motion in a recent court filing, asserting that the government will “vigorously” defend the challenged provision.  The religious exemption was a politically necessary compromise to get Title IX adopted by Congress.

While the June 16 Notice states that its interpretation of Title IX “supersedes and replaces any prior inconsistent statements made by the Department regarding the scope of Title IX’s jurisdiction over discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” it goes on to say that this “interpretation does not reinstate any previously rescinded guidance documents.”  This comment is significant, because during the Obama Administration the Education Department issued guidance documents on Title IX compliance requirements that took positions on many of the controversial issues that have been subject to litigation.  Those guidance requirements were cited by school boards and administrators in defending actions they took, even after the guidances were formally rescinded by the Education Department shortly after Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education.  DeVos took the position, later bolstered by a memorandum by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in October 2017, that Title IX did not cover sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination.

Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Secretary of Education, told The New York Times in an interview published on June 16 that “Students cannot be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity,” but left unclear the question whether his Department would be challenging state laws that ban transgender girls from competing in school sports.  He stated, “We need to make sure we are supporting all students in our schools,” but he did not get specific about particular challenged policies.  Making clear that “all” really means “all,” the Notice says that the Department’s Office of Civil Rights “carefully reviews allegations from anyone who files a complaint, including students who identify as male, female or nonbinary; transgender or cisgender; intersex; lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, heterosexual, or in other ways.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit recently heard arguments in the State of Idaho’s appeal from a district court decision finding that the state’s ban on transgender girls playing sports, the first such ban to be enacted, violates the constitutional rights of the transgender girls.  If this issue ends up in the Supreme Court, the Biden Administration will have to take a position one way or the other, just as it will be pressed to take a position if the Court grants the petition by the Gloucester County School Board in the Gavin Grimm case.  A federal court in Connecticut recently dismissed a lawsuit by a group of cisgender female high school athletes challenging a state policy of allowing transgender girls to compete, finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the issue to the court.

The Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX is not binding on the federal courts, but is entitled to some degree of deference under principles of administrative law.   After DeVos and Sessions “rescinded” the Obama Administration’s interpretation and guidance documents, many federal courts continued to rule in favor of transgender students and school administrators who had adopted policies allowing transgender students to use restroom facilities.  The lower federal courts have been united up to now in rejecting claims by parents and students that allowing transgender students to use restroom and locker room facilities violates the constitutional privacy rights of non-LGBTQ students, and the Supreme Court has so far refrained from hearing those cases.

As President Biden has boasted about how many LGBTQ people he has appointed, it is worth noting that both the Justice Department Civil Rights Division March 26 Memo and the June 16 DOE Notice were authored by out lesbian appointees, Pamela Karlan and Suzanne Goldberg.

Federal Court Blocks Idaho Law Barring Transgender Women from Athletic Competition

Posted on: August 18th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

David C. Nye, the Chief U.S. District Judge for Idaho, issued an injunction on August 17 to block enforcement of Idaho’s Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, which Governor Bradley Little had signed into law on March 30.  Hecox v. Little, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149442.  Passage of this law made Idaho the first state to enact a statutory ban on transgender women and girls competing in women’s interscholastic sports at all levels.

 

The statute was not enacted in response to any particular incident or crisis involving transgender women in Idaho seeking to compete in women’s sports.  Rather, it appears to have been inspired by news reports about incidents in other states, and in particular a lawsuit filed by some cisgender girls in Connecticut who were upset that the interscholastic sports association in that state had adopted a policy of allowing transgender women to compete as women.

 

Judge Nye pointed out that various professional associations governing women’s interscholastic sports have adopted rules that transgender women would be eligible to compete in women’s sports after having undergone at least one year of hormone therapy to suppress their testosterone levels, based on evidence showing that this would not pose unfair competition to cisgender women.

 

Despite the lack of any sort of emergency, the Idaho legislature actually delayed by a few days joining the nationwide trend of moving legislative activity on-line in the face of the coronavirus pandemic in order to enact two anti-transgender bills: this one, which the Republican State Attorney General warned them would present legal issues under the Constitution and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and a bill reviving a ban on issuing new birth certificates for transgender individuals, passed in defiance of an injunction issued by the federal court against a similar previous statute.  It was clearly anti-trans month in the Idaho legislature.

 

In addition to excluding transgender women from competing in any organized or team sports activity that was designated for women only, the law empowered anybody to challenge the female sex of a participant, placing the burden on the challenged individual to provide evidence of their female sex according to a definition that in essence considers transgender women to be men.  The law also authorized anybody who claimed to have been harmed by a violation of the statute to sue for damages.

 

The ACLU filed suit on behalf of Lindsay Hecox, transgender girl interested in competing in women’s sports, and a cisgender girl allowed to proceed anonymously as Jane Doe, both challenging the law on constitutional and statutory grounds, and seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the law from going into effect while the lawsuit plays out.  Jane Doe argued that the law subjected her to the possibility of being challenged as to her sex and subjected to invasive procedures.  The state responded with a motion to dismiss the case, and two cisgender women filed a motion to intervene as co-defendants, claiming that they would be harmed by being subjected to unfair competition from transgender women if the law was blocked.  Of course, the Trump Administrative, which is not a party to litigation involving a state law, filed a statement of interest, supporting Idaho’s right to exclude transgender women from competition.

 

Much of Judge Nye’s decision was taken up with the questions of whether the lawsuit was filed prematurely, whether the plaintiffs had standing to sue, and whether to grant the motion by the cisgender women to intervene.  He dealt with those issues at length, ultimately concluding that the plaintiffs did have a personal stake in the outcome of the case and that the law, as written, was subject to a pre-enforcement legal challenge.  The question of intervention was a closer call, but the judge resolved it in favor of allowing intervention.

 

However, he concluded that it was inappropriate to dismiss the case because this was a clear case of discrimination due to transgender status, and the Supreme Court’s June 15 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County clearly shows that such discrimination is discrimination “because of sex,” and thus subject to “heightened scrutiny” from the court in an Equal Protection challenge.   When a law is subject to heightened scrutiny, it does not enjoy the normal presumption of constitutionality. Rather, the state has a burden of justification, to show that the law substantially advances an important state interest.  Furthermore, as the Supreme Court held years ago in an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg finding the Virginia Military Institute’s men-only admissions policy to be unconstitutional, a law that discriminates because of sex will only survive judicial review if the state has an “exceedingly persuasive” justification for it.

 

In this case, however, such a justification was lacking, as Judge Nye found when he turned to the issue of a preliminary injunction.  Prior to the passage of the law there had been no official state policy restricting transgender women from competing as women, so this injunction was about maintaining the status quo while the lawsuit was under way.  Judge Nye weighed the factors courts are supposed to consider when determining whether to interfere with the legislature’s lawmaking power by blocking enforcement of a new statute, and resolved the issue against the state.

 

The state’s purported justification for the law was to “ensure equality and opportunities” for female athletes, but the court was not persuaded that law would substantially advance that goal.  “Ultimately,” Nye wrote, “the Court must hear testimony from the experts at trial and weigh both their credibility and the extent of the scientific evidence. However, the incredibly small percentage of transgender women athletes in general, coupled with the significant dispute regarding whether such athletes actually have physiological advantages over cisgender women when they have undergone hormone suppression in particular, suggest the Act’s categorical exclusion of transgender women athletes has no relationship to ensuring equality and opportunities for female athletes in Idaho.”

 

Taking note of existing rules in scholastic competition that transgender girls could not compete as women until they had undergone a year of testosterone suppression therapy, he could find little rationale for the law.  “In short, the State has not identified a legitimate interest served by the Act that the preexisting rules in Idaho did not already address, other than an invalid interest of excluding transgender women and girls from women’s sports entirely, regardless of their physiological characteristics,” he concluded. “As such, Lindsay is likely to succeed on the merits of her equal protection claim. Again, at this stage, the Court only discusses the ‘likelihood’ of success based on the information currently in the record. Actual success—or failure—on the merits will be determined at a later stage.”

 

However, he continued, “Instead of ensuring ‘long-term benefits that flow from success in athletic endeavors for women and girls,’ it appears that the Act hinders those benefits by subjecting women and girls to unequal treatment, excluding some from participating in sports at all, incentivizing harassment and exclusionary behavior, and authorizing invasive bodily examinations.  In the absence of any evidence that transgender women threatened equality in sports, girls’ athletic opportunities, or girls’ access to scholarships in Idaho during the ten years such policies were in place, neither Defendants nor the Intervenors would be harmed by returning to this status quo.”

 

Thus, the Idaho legislature is 0 for 2 on its decision to prolong the legislative session in the face of the pandemic, as a different federal judge has already reiterated that the injunction against the prior birth certificate law remains in effect as the lawsuit against the new birth certificate law – which was disingenuously worded to distinguish itself from the earlier one – continues.

 

The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU.  Judge Nye, who had served as a state court judge for several years, was nominated to the district court by President Obama during his last year in office, 2016, when Mitch McConnell and the Republican majority were refusing to confirm any of Obama’s nominees.  But Nye, a graduate of Brigham Young University’s Law School with a good reputation who earned the ABA’s highest rating, was nominated on the recommendation of Idaho’s two conservative Republican senators, who then asked President Trump to re-nominate him in 2017, and he quickly became Chief Judge when an elderly colleague retired shortly thereafter.  So here is the irony: Just as Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee wrote the opinion protecting transgender people under Title VII, one of his first district court nominees has rejected the position of the Trump Administration’s statement of interest filed in this case.