USA Justice First Look

Supreme Court backs off transgender bathroom case. What’s next for Gavin Grimm? (+video)

Many hoped a ruling from the Supreme Court would settle the issue, by answering a question that has arisen in several cities and states.

Transgender high school student Gavin Grimm poses in Gloucester, Va., Aug. 22, 2016. The US Supreme Court is returning a transgender teen’s case to a lower court without reaching a decision. The justices said Monday, March 6, 2017, they have opted not to decide whether federal anti-discrimination law gives high school senior Gavin Grimm the right to use the boys’ bathroom in his Virginia school.
Steve Helber/AP/File
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The debate over what bathroom transgender students can use will continue in schools across the country, as the US Supreme Court canceled a hearing in a high-profile case and sent the issue back to an appeals court.

Gavin Grimm, a transgender teenage boy, sued the Gloucester County School Board in Virginia after school administrators refused to let him use the boy’s bathroom at his high school. A federal appeals court sided with Gavin last year, and the local school board appealed to the nation’s highest court.

The decision not to hear the case comes after President Trump moved last month to withdraw an Obama-era guideline that called on schools to allow transgender teens to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity, not the sex on their birth certificate. Twenty-three states sued to block the directive, which was issued last May.

The lower court’s decision had used that directive in tandem with Title IX, a federal law that bars institutions receiving federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex, to make its judgement. It ruled that gender identity fell under the umbrella of sex and that the school rule violated the rights of transgender students like Gavin.

The eight-member Supreme Court voted in a 5-3 decision last summer to stall the appeals court ruling. When a new school year began in September, Gavin still did not have permission to use the boy’s bathroom at his school.

But after Mr. Trump revoked the Obama guidelines, the Supreme Court moved to vacate the former ruling, sending the case back to the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals for another hearing.

Proponents of restricting students to bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity have argued that bending the rules for students who identify as transgender could provide a cover for individuals seeking to gain access to the bathroom of the opposite sex for nefarious reasons. Legislators in Massachusetts, when they passed a law mandating that public restrooms be "inclusive" for transgender individuals, sought to address those concerns with regulations specifically prohibiting abuse of the flexibility.

"This compromise legislation extends additional protections to the commonwealth's transgender community, and includes language to address the public safety concerns expressed by some by requiring the attorney general to issue regulations to protect against people abusing the law," said Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker after signing the bill.

Many had hoped a ruling from the Supreme Court would put the long-debated issue to rest, answering a question that has arisen across the nation in several cities and states. Both sides had urged the court to keep the March 28 date to hear the case.

"This is disappointing for trans kids across the country and for Gavin, who are now going to be held in limbo for another year or two," Joshua Block, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represents Gavin, told reporters. "But Title IX means the same thing today as it meant yesterday. Lower courts already have held that it protects trans kids."

Cases similar to Gavin’s have become common across the country. Judges in Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have all recently ruled in favor of transgender students in bathroom disputes. Meanwhile, North Carolina continues to grapple with a controversial law known as House Bill 2, which, among other things, mandated that people use the bathroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate in public.

The Supreme Court’s decision to cancel the hearing means that transgender students will have to wait longer for the final word, but other private entities have already made up their minds on the issue. More than 50 businesses signed on to a brief supporting Gavin in the case last week, taking a stance that is seen as boosting their brands among advocates and many consumers.

That support also reflects how broader public opinion is shifting to favor transgender rights, say some observers.

“I don’t think you can overestimate the impact that this can have on the cause broadly,” Todd Sears, founder and principal of Out Leadership, a strategic advising firm that cultivates partnerships between businesses and the LGBT community, told The Christian Science Monitor last week. “You could lose in the Supreme Court but win in the court of public opinion.”

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.