RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — For the first time, the nation’s highest court will wade into the issue transgender rights — a contentious debate that has divided communities and courts across the country.
The U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday that the justices will take up the case of a Virginia school board that wants to prevent a transgender teenager from using the boys’ bathroom at his high school.
Here are five things you should know about the case and its potential implications nationwide:
HOW DID THIS CASE COME ABOUT?
The case was initially brought by Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old high school senior, who was born female but identifies as male.
Grimm was allowed to use the boys’ restroom at his high school for several weeks in 2014. But after some parents complained, the Gloucester County School Board adopted a policy requiring students to use either the restroom that corresponds with their biological gender or a private, single-stall restroom. Grimm says that policy violates Title IX, a federal law that bars sex discrimination in schools.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Grimm, concluding that courts should defer to the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of Title IX. The 4th Circuit pointed to a letter that the Department of Education sent the Gloucester County School Board in January 2015, which said transgender students should be allowed to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identities.
HOW BIG OF A DEAL IS THIS?
To members of the transgender community, there’s a lot at stake in Grimm’s case. Shannon Minter, a transgender man and an attorney who works on transgender issues, called Friday “one of the most important days in the history of the transgender movement.”
“The outcome of this case is likely to shape the future of that movement in ways that will resonate for a very long time,” Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in an email.
The case is also being closely watched by parents who say allowing transgender students into the restrooms and locker rooms of their choice raises serious privacy concerns.
“I think it was bound to happen that the Supreme Court would weigh in eventually,” said Vicki Wilson, a parent part of a lawsuit seeking to block a suburban Chicago school district from allowing a transgender student to use a girls’ locker room and restroom.
But it’s not certain that this case will result in a major ruling about transgender rights, said Kari Hong, an assistant law professor at Boston College who focuses on LGBT rights.
A central question in Grimm’s case is whether the Department of Education’s letter spelling out its position on Title IX should be given legal weight. It’s possible the court will address that issue without even getting to the larger question of transgender rights.
HOW WILL THIS AFFECT CASES IN NORTH CAROLINA AND ESLEWHERE?
If the justices do address the larger question, Grimm’s case could have a big impact on similar lawsuits pending around the country.
The Obama administration and North Carolina officials are battling in court over that state’s law aimed at restricting transgender students to bathrooms that correspond to their biological genders. Meanwhile, a federal judge in Texas has sided with Texas and 12 other states in issuing a nationwide hold on the administration’s directive to public schools, issued in May.
If the Supreme Court sides with Grimm and says courts should defer to the U.S. Department of Education rule, it would effectively invalidate the North Carolina law and overturn the Texas judge’s decision. If the Supreme Court sides with the Gloucester County School Board, the North Carolina law and the Texas judge’s decision will stand.
WILL GRIMM BE ABLE TO USE THE BOY’S RESTROOM THIS YEAR?
It’s unlikely that Grimm will be able to use the boy’s restroom before he graduates from high school.
While a district court judge in June ordered the school board to let Grimm use the boy’s restroom, the judge’s decision was put on hold by the Supreme Court until it rules in the case. The justices won’t hear the case until February, at the earliest, and likely wouldn’t make a decision until June.
AREN’T THERE ONLY EIGHT JUSTICES? HOW MIGHT THAT AFFECT THIS CASE?
There could be a ninth justice by the time Grimm’s case is taken up — or maybe not. That depends on who is elected president Nov. 8 and how quickly the Senate moves to confirm a successor for the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
If there are eight justices and the court splits evenly, the 4th Circuit decision would stand and Grimm would win his case. But the decision would have no impact outside the 4th Circuit covering Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, West Virginia and South Carolina.