Officials in 11 states sued to overturn the federal transgender bathroom directive, calling it a "massive social experiment"
Wednesday, May 25, 2016 3:23 PM EDT
In a forceful challenge to the Obama administration’s stand on transgender rights, officials in 11 states sued the federal government on Wednesday, arguing that it had no authority to direct the nation’s public school districts to permit students to use the restrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
States Sue Administration Over Transgender Bathroom Policy
By DAVID MONTGOMERY and ALAN BLINDERMAY 25, 2016
AUSTIN, Tex. — The Obama administration on Wednesday faced its first major challenge to its directive this month about the civil rights of transgender students in public schools, as officials in 11 states filed a lawsuit that tested the federal government’s interpretation of the statute forbidding sexual discrimination.
The states, including Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin, brought the case in a Federal District Court in North Texas and said that the Obama administration had “conspired to turn workplaces and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment, flouting the democratic process and running roughshod over common sense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights.”
The challenge by the states, most of which are led by Republican governors, came 12 days after civil rights lawyers from the Department of Education and the Justice Department issued what they described as “significant guidance” about how schools should accommodate transgender students to remain in compliance with federal law. A school, the Obama administration lawyers wrote, “must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity.”
The government said that a school had an obligation “to provide transgender students equal access to educational programs and activities even in circumstances in which other students, parents or community members raise objections or concerns.” The officials added that “the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students.”
The guidance provoked an uproar among conservatives, who said that the Obama administration had gone beyond settled law about discrimination in the United States, and it fed into the rapidly escalating national battle about transgender rights.
Wednesday’s litigation opened yet another front in the nation’s courtrooms. This month, the Justice Department and the State of North Carolina sued each other about a state law that curbed public restroom access for transgender people.
The guidance at issue in the Texas litigation become public soon after, and the state officials said Wednesday that the federal government had gone “so far beyond any reasonable reading of the relevant congressional text such that the new rules, regulations, guidance and interpretations functionally exercise lawmaking power reserved only to Congress.”
“This represents just the latest example of the current administration’s attempts to accomplish by executive fiat what they couldn’t accomplish through the democratic process in Congress,” Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas said in a statement. “By forcing through his policies by executive action, President Obama excluded the voice of the people. We stand today to ensure those voices are heard.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include nine states — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin — as well as the governor of Maine, Paul R. LePage; the Arizona Department of Education; and school districts in Arizona and Texas.
State officials also complained about what they said was an implied threat in the Obama administration’s guidance: that schools that failed to comply risked their access to federal money.
U.S. & Politics By CBS, VIA REUTERS Play Video 1:18 Texas Leads 11-State Suit Over Bathrooms
Texas Leads 11-State Suit Over Bathrooms
Texas said it was among 11 states filing suit against the Obama administration’s mandate to allow transgender students to use whatever bathroom they identify with. By CBS, VIA REUTERS on Publish Date May 25, 2016. Watch in Times Video »
Republican leaders in Texas from Gov. Greg Abbott on down have railed against Obama’s policy since it was enacted. The issue was a pervasive theme at the recent state Republican Convention in Dallas where Mr. Abbott and other leaders strongly suggested that the state would be taking action.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, repeating a pledge from the days of Texas independence, called the issue a “come-and-take-it moment.” He said that the state was prepared to vigorously defy the directive and that it would not be cowed by the administration’s pledge to withhold federal funding for non-compliance.
“He says he’s going to withhold funding if schools do not follow the policy,” Mr. Patrick told reporters. “Well, in Texas, he can keep his 30 pieces of silver. We will not yield to blackmail from the President of the United States.”
In Washington, federal officials have in recent weeks made no secret of their willingness to litigate on transgender rights. When she announced the Justice Department’s lawsuit against North Carolina this month, Attorney General Loretta Lynch likened the issue to clashes about Jim Crow laws and same-sex marriage.
“This is not the first time that we have seen discriminatory responses to historic moments of progress,” Ms. Lynch said May 9. Addressing transgender people, she added: “We see you. We stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”
Last week, Oklahoma lawmakers introduced bills that would allow students to request on religious grounds that their public schools provide a bathroom or other facility that bars transgender people. It was one of the earliest legislative moves in what has become a pushback by states against the Obama administration’s policy.
The issue first gained widespread prominence when Houston voters last year resoundingly rejected an ordinance that would have established protections from discrimination for gay and transgender residents. Opponents argued the ordinance’s gender identity protection would allow sexual predators to enter women’s bathrooms. Outside polling places, signs read “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.”
Texas has been in the forefront of lawsuits challenging the reach and authority of Mr. Obama and his administration. In 2015, it led the way, joined by 25 other states, in bringing a lawsuit to halt Mr. Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Those actions would have provided protection from deportation to more than four million immigrants in the country illegally, as well as work permits.
Texas argued that the programs, which Mr. Obama sought to carry out without approval from Congress or a change of regulations, were a gross overreach of executive power that would result in big financial burdens for states.
The administration argues that immigration policy was the domain of the president and the federal authorities, and has disputed whether Texas is legally entitled to bring the case. Administration lawyers also said that Texas would benefit from increased taxes if the immigrants could work legally, and that the state could change its laws to avoid costs from the programs.
Lower courts agreed with Texas, and Mr. Obama’s programs have not gone into effect. The case is before the Supreme Court.
David Montgomery reported from Austin, and Alan Blinder from Atlanta. Julia Preston contributed reporting from New York.