Appeals court to consider bathroom use by transgender student
Last year, a federal court ruled the St. Johns County school district had to accommodate Drew Adams
ATLANTA (AP) – A student has the right to use the bathroom that corresponds to his gender identity, a lawyer told a federal court Thursday, arguing that the issue is about the right of transgender students to “equal dignity.”
But the Florida school district that’s appealing a lower court order in favor of the transgender boy told three judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that they should overturn the ruling and let the school district restrict students to the bathroom matching their at-birth sex to protect the privacy of other students.
The case involves Drew Adams, who has since graduated from Nease High School in St. Johns County. Adams transitioned from a girl to a boy before his freshman year, and used the boys’ room at the Ponte Vedra, Florida, school for a few weeks before several girls complained. Administrators barred him from the boys’ restroom and instead steered him toward single-user gender neutral restrooms. A lower court last year overturned that policy after a bench trial, ordering the St. Johns County school district to let Adams use the boys’ restroom.
The 11th Circuit could become the first federal appeals court to issue a binding ruling on the issue, which has arisen in several states. The ruling would cover schools in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, and could carry the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court. The 4th Circuit had ruled in favor of a transgender Virginia student, but the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back down for further consideration after the U.S. Department of Education, under President Donald Trump, withdrew guidance that said federal law called for treating transgender students equally, including allowing them to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.
All the parties in the Atlanta courtroom Thursday were aware of the possibility that the ruling will set an important precedent. Lawyer Tara Borelli of Lambda Legal, who represents Adams, said after the hearing she was hoping schools will get “a clear statement that the law requires that transgender students be treated equally.”
But Circuit Judge Bill Pryor hammered Borelli, asking her how the judges could uphold the lower court ruling without setting the stage to allow anyone to ask for access to any bathroom or finding all sex-based distinctions illegal.
“These rationales apply to any form of sex-based segregation,” Pryor said.
Borelli, though, repeatedly underscored that Adams is not seeking to abolish distinctions between men and women.
“This case is only about me, a boy, being allowed to use the boys’ bathroom,” Adams said after the hearing, echoing what Borelli told Pryor.
Adams, now a student at the University of Central Florida, told reporters that he’s never had a problem using a men’s bathroom.
“Before this became an issue, nobody knew who I was, nobody cared what bathroom I used,” Adams said. “Most people when they use the bathroom, don’t look twice at who’s in there with them. So, this really wasn’t an issue until the school board made it an issue.”
A lawyer for St. Johns County urged judges to reverse the ruling and uphold the policy restricting students to the bathroom of their at-birth sex, saying the trial court judge overstepped.
“Differences between the sexes are real and it necessitates this kind of separation between the sexes,” lawyer Jeff Slanker told judges. “This has always been the way it’s been done.”
Judge Beverly Martin repeatedly asked Slanker if he could provide any specific complaints that spurred the policy. Slanker could not, saying the school district acted “proactively” to protect students’ privacy interests. The trial judge rejected this argument, finding that Adams would use a stall and that no breach of privacy would occur.
Borelli told judges the district’s policy would “heap discrimination on transgender students.”
“There is no recognized right in the law to not have to share space with transgender students,” she argued.
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