Supreme Court Won’t Hear Challenging to School’s Transgender-Inclusive Bathroom Policy

Yesterday the Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari that, had it been granted, would have led the Court to review a Third Circuit appellate court ruling that upheld a Pennsylvania school district’s policy of allowing transgender students to use restrooms and lockers in an inclusive manner, consistent with their gender identities. Students and parents who disagree with the policy had challenged it as a violation of the students’ constitutional right to privacy, as well as under Title IX. By denying the petition, the Court ensures that the appellate ruling in the school’s favor will stand.

This is good news for transgender students because it means there is no chance, in the near future anyway, that the Supreme Court will undermine this and other lower court rulings that uphold schools’ inclusive bathroom and restroom policies. For now, while school districts will likely continue to face similar challenges, appellate courts will be free to construe the Constitution’s due process clause, as well as Title IX, in support of the same conclusion as was reached by the Third Circuit, that neither source of law creates a right that is violated when schools adopt a gender-inclusive bathroom/locker room policy. Specifically, the Third Circuit agreed with the lower court that the student-plaintiff’s privacy rights were not violated by sharing facilities with transgender students, and even if they were, “the state had a compelling interest in not discriminating against transgender students” to which the district’s policy was narrowly tailored. The appellate court also endorsed the lower court’s conclusions that the policy did not violate Title IX claim because (1) it applied equally to all students regardless of their sex and gender identity (2) “the mere presence of a transgender student in a locker room should not be objectively offensive to a reasonable person given the safeguards of the school’s policy.”

Yet this good news accompanies concern arising from the Supreme Court’s granting of cert last month in a Title VII employment discrimination case that will give the Court the opportunity to settle whether the law protects transgender employees from discrimination, either on the rationale that discriminating against someone’s transgender status is a form of sex discrimination (since such discrimination targets someone because their sex and their gender are not aligned) or on the rationale that sex discrimination includes discriminating against someone whose gender identity and expression does not conform to stereotypes associated with that person’s sex.  Since both of these theories have been used to support the rights of transgender students under Title IX to access bathrooms and locker rooms according to their gender identities, a negative outcome in the Title VII case could put Title IX cases in jeopardy (though Equal Protection claims, which have also been found to support transgender students’ rights, would not be as directly affected.)  In other words, what the Court may be signaling by granting cert in case asserting transgender person’s civil rights but denying it in a case challenging the accommodation of a transgender person’s civil rights is that inclusive policies like the school district’s here are legal, but not required. We will just have to see what the Court does next Term.

Doe by through Doe v. Boyertown Area Sch. Dist., 897 F.3d 518, 525 (3d Cir. 2018), cert. denied, No. 18-658, 2019 WL 2257330 (U.S. May 28, 2019)