The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday preserved a Pennsylvania school district’s policy accommodating transgender students, declining to hear a challenge backed by a conservative Christian group to rules letting them use bathrooms matching their gender identity.
The justices left in place a 2018 lower court ruling that upheld the Boyertown Area School District policy, which was challenged by six former or current high school students, though the action does not set a national legal precedent. The Supreme Court scrapped plans to hear a major transgender rights case involving bathroom access in public schools in 2017 and has never issued a decisive ruling on the matter.
The students challenging the policy argued that it violated their right to privacy under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment and a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, known as Title IX. They were backed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group that has been involved in several major Supreme Court cases.
The Boyertown schools policy allows certain transgender students on a case-by-case basis to use locker rooms and restrooms that correspond to their gender identity. There is only one high school in the district, Boyertown Area Senior High School, which is located in the outer suburbs of Philadelphia.
Democratic former President Barack Obama’s administration in 2016 issued guidance to American public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity, a milestone in the history of transgender rights in the United States. That and other Obama policies supporting transgender rights triggered a backlash from Christian conservatives and some Republican politicians.
Just a month after taking office in 2017, Republican President Donald Trump’s administration rescinded the Obama guidance. The administration has taken other steps to limit transgender rights including a Justice Department conclusion that a federal law against workplace discrimination on the basis of sex does not cover transgender or gay employees.
The Supreme Court on Jan. 22 allowed Trump’s policy barring many transgender people from the military to go into effect, lifting lower court rulings that had blocked it on constitutional grounds while a legal challenge continues.
The Trump administration last week also proposed rescinding an Obama-era regulation that protects transgender patients under the Affordable Care Act, often known as Obamacare.
Lawyers for the students challenging the policy said the high school did not notify students or parents about it. During the 2016-2017 academic year, the school district applied the policy to three transgender students.
At the time the policy was introduced, the school district removed group showers in the locker rooms and replaced them with individual stalls. The district also added new multi-user bathrooms with individual stalls and built several single-user bathrooms.
The American Civil Liberties Union represents a Pennsylvania gay and transgender rights group that intervened in the case in support of the policy.
Among the student challengers, two still attend the school while four others do not. One of the students, identified in the case as Joel Doe, was “embarrassed and confused” when he was in the locker room getting undressed with a transgender student present, his lawyers said in court papers.
“Joel Doe was marked down in gym class for failing to change his clothes, and he eventually felt forced to leave the school entirely,” the lawyers wrote.
Lawyers for the school district said the challenging students “failed to show any infringement of their rights” and defended the district’s “sound educational policy” in handling transgender students.
The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the school district in June 2018, prompting the challengers to appeal to the Supreme Court.