Missouri Supreme Court rules in favor of trans student in Blue Springs bathroom case

What are ‘bathroom rights’?

Many states have legislation pending that would make it illegal for transgender people to choose which public bathroom they use based on their gender identity.
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Many states have legislation pending that would make it illegal for transgender people to choose which public bathroom they use based on their gender identity.

A transgender student who was denied access to the boys bathroom and locker room by the Blue Springs school district has the right to sue for sex discrimination, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

In a 5-2 decision, the court overturned a Jackson County court’s dismissal of the student’s lawsuit against the district, ruling in favor of the student, identified in court records as R.M.A.

“We’re very pleased with the ruling and that the Supreme Court has ruled in our favor and is going to allow the case to go forward,” said the student’s attorney, Alexander Edelman. “Hopefully, this is one more step forward in solving discrimination.”

The Supreme Court ruling is significant because it signals that the state’s human rights laws against sex discrimination in public spaces can be extended to transgender people. Opponents had argued that denying a transgender student access to gender-based facilities isn’t sex discrimination.

The Missouri Human Rights Commission doesn’t explicitly protect against discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation, but it does protect against sex discrimination. But the ruling means that the district and its school board could be held liable for the student’s claims.

The dissenting judges argued that state law only protects individuals based on biological sex.

According to court documents, R.M.A. sued the school district in October 2015 after he was not permitted to use the boys bathroom and locker room at school.

The student had identified as male since fourth grade. While the district did update the student’s school records to reflect a name change and allowed the student to play sports and take gym class with male students, it did not grant the student access to boys’ facilities. Instead, it offered the student the use of a unisex bathroom.

A Jackson County Circuit Court judge upheld the district’s efforts to dismiss the lawsuit, and the student appealed.

Multiple human rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Missouri and the Transgender Law Center, filed briefs in support of the student.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court made a similar ruling in the case of a gay man who filed harassment claims with the Missouri Commission of Human Rights after he said he was harassed at work because of his sexual orientation.

The court found that the commission was wrong not to investigate his claims under the grounds that gay people are not a protected class in Missouri and that the case should move forward.

On Tuesday, ACLU of Missouri legal director Tony Rothert called the rulings “another step toward improving the clarity of Missouri’s nondiscrimination stance.”

“Members of the LGBTQ community should enjoy the same protections against sex-based discrimination as everyone else,” Rothert said in a statement. “Excluding LGBTQ individuals from legal protections was justified by outdated, destructive stereotypes and ignored the lived reality of thousands of people in our state.”

The Blue Springs district and its lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Edelman, the student’s attorney, said the Supreme Court “recognized that the prohibition against sex discrimination applies regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity...Now, we’ll have the opportunity to move forward and prove our case.”

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Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.