Transgender directive prompts a dozen states to sue

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas is leading a dozen states, including Maine, in suing the Obama administration over its directive to U.S. public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their self-selected gender identity.

The lawsuit announced Wednesday also includes Oklahoma, Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arizona, Louisiana, Utah and Georgia. It asks a North Texas federal court to declare the directive unlawful in what ranks among the most coordinated and visible legal challenges by states over the socially divisive issue of bathroom access for transgender persons.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, said he intends to have his administration join the lawsuit as soon as possible, in a statement issued Thursday. Bryant said the bathroom guidance is an example of “federal overreach.”

The Obama administration has “conspired to turn workplace and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment, flouting the democratic process, and running roughshod over commonsense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights,” the lawsuit reads.

Many of the conservative states involved had previously vowed defiance, calling the guidance a threat to safety while being accused of supporting discrimination by transgender rights advocates. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has previously said “there is no room in our schools for discrimination.”

The White House had no comment on the lawsuit. The Justice Department said it would review the complaint and did not comment further.

Texas’ lieutenant governor has previously said the state is willing to forfeit $10 billion in federal education dollars rather than comply. The directive from the U.S. Justice and Education Departments represents an escalation in the fast-moving dispute over what is becoming the civil rights issue of the day.

Pressed about whether he knew of any instances in which a child’s safety had been threatened because of transgender bathroom access, Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said “there’s not a lot of research” during a news briefing about the lawsuit. He said his office has heard from concerned parents, but didn’t say how many, and said he didn’t meet with any parents of transgender students before drafting the lawsuit.

The states claim that the directive demands “seismic changes” in schools across the U.S. and forces them to let students choose a bathroom “that match their chosen ‘gender identity’ on any given day.”

Two school districts joined the states in the lawsuit: one is the tiny Harrold school district in North Texas, which has roughly 100 students and passed a policy this week requiring students to use the bathroom based on the gender on their birth certificate. Superintendent David Thweatt said his schools have no transgender students to his knowledge but defended the district taking on the federal government.

“It’s not moot because it was thrusted upon us by the federal government,” Thweatt said, “or we were going to risk losing our federal funding.”

The question of how federal civil rights law deals with access issues for transgender people hasn’t been definitively answered by the courts and may ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. But schools that refuse to comply could be hit with civil rights lawsuits from the government and could face a cutoff of federal aid to education, according to the guidance issued last week.

The guidance came after the Justice Department and North Carolina sued each other over a state law that requires transgender people to use the public facilities that correspond to the sex indicated on their birth certificate. The law applies to schools and many other places.

Supporters say such measures are needed to protect the privacy of women and children and guard them against sexual predators masquerading as transgender, while the Justice Department and others argue the threat is practically nonexistent and the law is unconstitutional.

Written by Paul J. Weber