A federal judge in Texas has blocked the Obama administration’s order that requires public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity.
In a temporary injunction signed Sunday, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that the federal education law known as Title IX “is not ambiguous” about sex being defined as “the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth.”
The judge said his order, which applies nationwide, was not about the policy issues of transgender rights but his conclusion that federal officials simply did not follow rules that required an opportunity for comment before such directives are issued.
“This case presents the difficult issue of balancing the protection of students’ rights and that of personal privacy … while ensuring that no student is unnecessarily marginalized while attending school,” he wrote.
The ruling was the second recent setback for transgender advocates. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Virginia school board can block, for now, a transgender male from using the boys restroom while justices decide whether to fully intervene.
Texas and 12 other states challenged the White House directive as unconstitutional.
The judge also sided with Republican state leaders who argued that schools should have been allowed to weigh in before the White House directive was announced in May.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, had argued that halting the order before school began was necessary because districts risked losing federal education dollars if they did not comply. Federal officials did not explicitly make that threat upon issuing the directive, although they also never ruled out the possibility.
“This president is attempting to rewrite the laws enacted by the elected representatives of the people and is threatening to take away federal funding from schools to force them to conform,” Paxton said. “That cannot be allowed to continue, which is why we took action to protect states and school districts.”
The Justice Department issued a brief statement saying it was disappointed in the ruling and was now reviewing its options.
The ruling does not prohibit schools that allow transgender students to use the facilities of their choice from continuing to do so.
Neither Missouri nor Kansas were among the states that challenged the Obama administration’s directive. In June, the Kansas State Board of Education voted to ignore the order. The board argued at the time that local districts should decide how to handle issues involving their transgender students, including which bathrooms they use and which name and gender is listed on rosters and school records.
David Smith, spokesman for Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools, said the Texas judge’s ruling “does not change anything for us. We do what works for the individual student. We want to make sure all our students are safe and secure.”
Smith said each school works with parents and the student, and “it is always the student’s choice” whether the student uses the restroom that corresponds with their birth gender or makes arrangements to use another bathroom.
The response was similar in the Shawnee Mission School District. “We plan to continue to handle requests or concerns on an individual basis, meeting with families to develop appropriate individual plans and accommodations to meet the student’s needs,” said Leigh Anne Neal, district spokeswoman.
The judge’s ruling could impact K-12 public schools as well as public colleges and universities.
At the University of Missouri and at University of Missouri-Kansas City, officials said the ruling won’t change anything on their campuses. Both already provide gender-neutral restrooms on their campuses and a list on their websites to make locating those facilities easier for the campus community.
Paul Castillo is a Dallas attorney for the gay rights group Lambda Legal, which had urged the court to let the White House directive stand. He said the latest ruling was a continuation of attacks on transgender people.
“I think today is going to be a hard day for transgender students,” Castillo said. “The decision is certainly emotional and certainly an attack on transgender students’ dignity.”
The federal government issued the mandate days after the Justice Department sued North Carolina over a state law that requires people to use public bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch likened that law to the policies of racial segregation. Republicans have argued such laws are common-sense privacy safeguards.
The Obama administration had told the court that recipients of federal education dollars were “clearly on notice” that anti-discrimination polices must be followed. Texas alone gets roughly $10 billion in federal education funds.
The lawsuit was filed in May by Texas, Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Utah and Georgia, and the Republican governors of Maine, Mississippi and Kentucky. Two small school districts in Arizona and Texas, which have fewer than 600 students combined and no transgender students on their campuses, also joined the effort to prevent the directive from being enforced.
Last year, O’Connor granted an order that temporarily blocked federal rules that would have expanded medical leave benefits to some gay couples.
The Star’s Mará Rose Williams contributed to this story.