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Alliance Defending Freedom Loses Appeal in Transgender High School Athletics Case

Posted on: December 19th, 2022 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the New York City-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit has rejected an appeal by the conservative religious litigation group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) from a ruling by Senior U.S. District Judge Robert N. Chatigny, who last year had rejected a challenge to the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) policy of allowing transgender students to participate in high school athletic competitions consistent with their gender identity.

The December 16 opinion for the 2nd Circuit panel in Soule v. Connecticut Association of Schools, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 34791, 2022 WL 17724715, by Judge Denny Chin found in agreement with Judge Chatigny that the plaintiffs (four cisgender women who competed on their high school track teams in CIAC-sponsored competition) lacked standing for the injunctive relief they were seeking, and that their claim for damages was barred because the defendants were not on notice when they accepted federal funding that their transgender participation policy would violate Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Indeed, the court found that Title IX most likely has the opposite effect, requiring schools to allow transgender students to compete consistent with their gender identity.  ADF, claiming in a press release that the court “got it wrong” and that it was discriminatory for girls to compete against “males” in athletics, announced that it was considering “all options”, which could include a possible appeal, either requesting n banc review by the 2nd Circuit or requesting the Supreme Court to hear the case. (ADF routinely calls transgender girls “boys” or “males” in its activities attacking affirmative transgender rights policies.)

The plaintiffs – Selina Soule, Chelsea Mitchell, Alanna Smith, and Ashley Nicoletti – were high school track competitors who claimed that allowing two transgender girls – Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller – to compete with them in CIAC-sponsored matches unfairly discriminated against plaintiffs on the basis of their sex.  Yearwood and Miller finished ahead of each of the plaintiffs in various track events during 2019 competition, although there were also events in which one or more of the plaintiffs finished ahead of the transgender girls.

The plaintiffs claimed that the CIAC policy violates Title IX, which forbids schools that receive federal funding from denying “equal educational opportunity on the basis of sex.”  Title IX provided the impetus for school programs to significantly increase opportunities for girls to participate in athletics since it was passed in 1972.  More recently, it has been interpreted by many (but not all) federal courts to prohibit discrimination because of gender identity.  This interpretation was bolstered in June 2020 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County, 140 S. Ct. 1731, that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination “because of sex,” extends to claims of discrimination because of “transgender status.”  Federal courts have generally looked to Title VII interpretations of “discrimination because of sex” when interpreting Title IX, despite slight variations in the wording of the statutes (“because of sex” versus “on the basis of sex”).

The plaintiffs alleged that the CIAC policy “is now regularly resulting in boys displacing girls in competitive track events in Connecticut,” that “students who are born female now have materially fewer opportunities to stand on the victory podium, fewer opportunities to participate in post-season elite competition, fewer opportunities for public recognition as champions, and a much smaller chance of setting recognized records, than students who are born male.”  They claimed a “direct violation” of Title IX.

But all the plaintiffs were able to compete, and in the entire state of Connecticut there were only two transgender girls with whom they were competing.  Furthermore, by the time their suit was filed and Judge Chatigny ruled on the defendants’ motions to dismiss the case, both of the transgender girls (who were permitted to intervene as defendants represented by the ACLU) had graduated and there were no transgender girls participating in CIAC-sponsored meets.  The plaintiffs had asked the court to order the CIAC to bar CIAC from enforcing its policy and to delete the transgender girls from the records of the matches in which they had competed, which would elevate one or more of the plaintiffs to higher standing in some of those matches.

The Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities also intervened as a defendant in support of the CIAC policy.  Connecticut’s human rights law forbids gender identity discrimination.

Judge Chatigny concluded that the plaintiffs lacked standing for the relief they were seeking.  Some of their claims were deemed mooted by the passage of time and subsequent events.  By the time the motion to be dismiss was decided, the plaintiffs, who were near graduation from high school, were no longer affected by the policy, so lacked standing to seek an injunction against its enforcement.  Also, the plaintiffs alleged that their athletic records were crucial to their ability to gain college admissions and subsequent employment, but by the time the Court of Appeals was considering this appeal, the plaintiffs had all been admitted to college and the impact of their final standing in CIAC competitions on their employment opportunities was deemed too speculative to support a claim of actual injury, which is necessary for the relief they were seeking.  The Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Chatigny and affirmed the denial of injunctive relief.

As to the plaintiffs’ damage claims, under a 1981 Supreme Court precedent, Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1, a damage claim under a statute that imposes a federal non-discrimination requirement on a defendant because the defendant is the recipient of federal funds may not be made unless the funding recipient was on notice when they decided to accept the funding about the specific non-discrimination obligation to which they were subjecting themselves by accepting the money.

The burden is on the plaintiff to show that defendants were “on notice” that by letting transgender girls compete, they were violating the Title IX rights of cisgender girls.  “We conclude that only the opposite has been shown here,” wrote Judge Chin for the Court of Appeals.

The judge first noted that “guidance” from the Department of Education (DOE) under Title IX “has fluctuated with the changes in presidential administrations.”  In 2016, during the Obama Administration, DOE advised schools, based on the Equal Employment Opportunity’s decision that Title VII covered gender identity discrimination, that schools could not discriminate against transgender students, and this required allowing them to participate in school athletics.  In 2017, with the Trump Administration, that guidance was withdrawn by DOE on the ground that it needed to be “considered more completely.”  In 2020, DOE sent the CIAC a letter of “impending enforcement action” reacting to publicity about this lawsuit, interpreting Title IX to require that gender-specific sports teams be separated based on “biological sex,” but that was withdrawn by the new Biden Administration in February 2021 before any action was taken by DOE against the CIAC.

Perhaps more significantly, Judge Chin pointed out, although this precise issue has not yet been decided by other courts of appeals in the sports context, there are have been numerous court of appeals decisions in other circuits, many of which were denied review by the Supreme Court, holding that schools covered by Title IX cannot discriminate against transgender students, and cases holding that allowing transgender students to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity do not violate the Title IX rights of cisgender students.

“Although these cases from our sister circuits do not address the exact issue of participation of transgender athletes on gender specific sports teams,” wrote Chin, “such authority nonetheless establishes that discrimination based on transgender status is generally prohibited under federal law, and further supports the conclusion that the CIAC and its member schools lacked clear notice that the Policy violates Title IX.”  The court also rejected ADF’s argument that the plaintiffs were entitled to an exception from the Pennhurst “notice” rule because defendants “intentionally” discriminated against the plaintiffs, commenting that “the Policy could not be considered ‘intentional conduct that violates the clear terms of’ Title IX, given Bostock and the decisions from other Courts of Appeals.  Thus the ‘intentional conduct exception is inapplicable here.’”

In its press release denouncing the decision, ADF pointed out that 18 states have now passed laws requiring that participation in sex-specific athletic competition must be based on “biological sex” as identified at birth.  However, if Title IX protects transgender girls from being excluded from participating in such sports, the state laws would be preempted by federal law.  Although the 2nd Circuit decision does not directly rule on the merits of that question, Judge Chin’s ruling strongly suggests that attempts by schools to exclude transgender girls could subject the schools to Title IX liability.

Senior Judge Chatigny was appointed by President Bill Clinton.  Judge Chin was appointed to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals by President Barack Obama.

 

 

Unanimous Federal Appeals Court Rules Indiana Must List Lesbian Mothers on Birth Certificates

Posted on: January 20th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled on January 17, 2020, in Henderson v. Box, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 1559, 2019 WL 255305, that the state of Indiana must recognize the same-sex spouses of women who give birth as mothers, who should be listed on the birth certificates for their children.  Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote the opinion for the court.

The timing of this appeal made the outcome unsurprising.  In June and December 2016, District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt issued rulings in this case, ultimately holding unconstitutional various Indiana statutes upon which the state relied in refusing to list the same-sex spouses on their children’s birth certificates.  See Henderson v. Adams, 209 F. Supp. 3d 1059 (S.D. Ind., June 30, 2016); Henderson v. Adams, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 180330, 2016 WL 7492478 (S.D. Ind., Dec. 30, 2016).  Judge Pratt relied on her reading of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), which ruled that same-sex couples have a right to marry and their marriages must be treated the same for all purposes as the marriages of different-sex couples.  Just six months after Judge Pratt’s last ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court stated the same conclusion in Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075 (2017), ruling that Arkansas could not refuse to list such parents on birth certificates.

In light of the Pavan ruling, one would have thought that Indiana would desist from appealing Judge Pratt’s ruling to the 7th Circuit.  But the state’s lawyers insisted that the state had a right to make the initial birth certificate of a child a record solely of the biological parents of the child, so long as they would allow same-sex spouses to seek an amended birth certificate at a later date.  Judge Pratt had rejected this argument, and the Supreme Court’s Pavan ruling vindicated her reading of the Obergefell decision’s implications for birth certificates.

Describing Judge Pratt’s first ruling, issued on June 30, 2016, Judge Easterbrook wrote, “The district court issued an injunction requiring Indiana to treat children born into female-female marriages as having two female parents, who under the injunction must be listed on the birth certificate.  Because Indiana lists only two parents on a birth certificate, this effectively prevents the state from treating as a parent a man who provided the sperm, while it requires the identification as parent of one spouse who provided neither sperm nor egg.”  Pratt concluded that this was required by Obergefell, which, Easterbrook noted, was confirmed by the Supreme Court in Pavan.

Indiana argued on this appeal that “Obergefell and Pavan do not control,” explained Easterbrook.  “In its view, birth certificates in Indiana follow biology rather than marital status.  The state insists that a wife in an opposite-sex marriage who conceives a child through artificial insemination must identify, as the father, not her husband but the sperm donor.”

By contrast, the plaintiffs argued that Indiana’s statute is status-based, not based on biology, and in fact heterosexually-married women who give birth to children conceived through donor insemination routinely designate their husbands, contrary to Indiana’s rather strange argument that the worksheet the women are given to complete in order to get the birth certificate is intended to elicit the identity of the child’s biological father – in that case, the sperm donor.  Mothers are asked to name the “father” of their child, and the state contended that this means they should be listing the sperm donor if the child was conceived through donor insemination.

That the argument is complete nonsense certainly did not help the state’s case.  Indeed, the semantic games that attorneys from the Office of the Attorney General were playing makes for a curious opinion by Easterbrook, whose tone projects some bemusement.  “The district judge thought the state’s account of mothers’ behavior to be implausible,” he wrote.  “Some mothers filling in the form may think that ‘husband’ and ‘father’ mean the same thing.  Others may name their husbands for social reasons, no matter what the form tells them to do.  Indiana contends that it is not responsible for private decisions, and that may well be so – but it is responsible for the text of Indiana Code Section 31-14-7-1(1), which establishes a presumption that applies to opposite-sex marriages but not same-sex marriages.”  This is the presumption that the husband of a married woman who gives birth is the father of her child.  “Opposite-sex couples can have their names on children’s birth certificates without going through adoption; same-sex couples cannot.  Nothing about the birth worksheet changes that rule.”

The state argued that of course the same-sex spouse can then adopt the child and be listed on an amended birth certificate.  Thus, the same-sex couple will have a birth certificate naming both of them, and the state will retain on file the original birth certificate documenting the child’s biological parentage.  But why should a married same-sex couple, entitled under the Constitution to have their marriage treated the same as a different-sex marriage, have to go through an adoption to get a proper birth certificate?

The lawsuit also sought the trial court’s declaration that the children of the two couples who brought the suit were born “in wedlock,” not “out of wedlock” as a literal interpretation of the state’s statutes would hold.  Yet again, the state’s insistence on perpetuating the former legal regime was rejected.

Judge Easterbrook identified another way that the statutes on the books fail to account for reality. What if the child of a same-sex female couple has two “biological” mothers?  Easterbrook observed that “Indiana’s current statutory system fails to acknowledge the possibility that the wife of a birth mother also is a biological mother.  One set of plaintiffs in this suit shows this.  Lisa Philips-Stackman is the birth mother of L.J.P.-S., but Jackie Philips-Stackman, Lisa’s wife, was the egg donor.  Thus Jackie is both L.J.P.-S.’s biological mother and the spouse of L.J.P.-S.’s birth mother.  There is also a third biological parent (the sperm donor), but Indiana limits to two the number of parents it will record.”

“We agree with the district court,” wrote Easterbrook, “that, after Obergefell and Pavan, a state cannot presume that a husband is the father of a child born in wedlock, while denying an equivalent presumption to parents in same-sex marriages.”  Because the current statute does that, he continued, “its operation was properly enjoined.”

However, the court of appeals found that Judge Pratt went too far when she declared that all the relevant statutory provisions are invalid in their entirety and forbade their operation “across the board,” because “some parts of these statutes have a proper application.”  For example, the provision that allows for somebody who is not a husband to the birth mother to be identified as the biological father as a result of genetic testing, and, for another example, the provision that “provides that a child is born in wedlock if the parents attempted to marry each other but a technical defect prevented the marriage from being valid.”  Easterbrook asserted that neither of these provisions violated the constitution.  “A remedy must not be broader than the legal justification for its entry, so the order in this suit must be revised,” he wrote.

“The district court’s order requiring Indiana to recognize the children of these plaintiffs as legitimate children, born in wedlock, and to identify both wives in each union as parents, is affirmed,” the court concluded.  “The injunction and declaratory judgment are affirmed to the extent they provide that the presumption in Indiana Code Sec. 31-14-7-1(1) violates the Constitution.”

Circuit Judge Easterbrook was appointed by Ronald Reagan, as was Judge Joel Flaum.  The third judge on the panel, Diane Sykes, was appointed by George W. Bush.  Thus, the ruling is the work of a panel consisting entirely of judicial conservatives appointed by Republican presidents.  The clear holding of Pavan v. Smith was such that they could not honestly rule otherwise, regardless of their personal views about same-sex marriage and parentage.  After all, in Pavan the Supreme Court rejected exactly the same arguments that Indiana was making in this case.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs include Karen Celestino-Horseman, Raymond L. Faust, Megan L. Gehring, Richard Andrew Mann, and William R. Groth, all practicing in Indianapolis in several different law firms.  Amicus briefs were filed for a variety of groups by pro bono attorneys from Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., representing the Family Equality Council, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and 49 Professors of Family Law.