Why North Carolina's 'bathroom law' could soon be overturned

A US Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a transgender Virginia teen Tuesday, and law experts say this ruling could have immediate implications for North Carolina's controversial HB2 law.

Steve Helber/AP/File
Gavin Grimm poses on his front porch during an interview at his home in Gloucester, Va., Aug. 25. A US appeals court has overturned a policy barring a transgender student from using the boys' restrooms at his Virginia high school. A three-judge panel of the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday, that the Gloucester County School Board policy is discriminatory. A federal judge had earlier rejected Grimm's sex discrimination claim.

A Virginia school board discriminated against 16-year-old transgender student Gavin Grimm by banning him from the boys’ restroom, a US Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

The ruling from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond does not immediately permit Gavin to use the boy's restroom at Gloucester High School, as the case must be redirected to a lower court that originally upheld the school’s ruling. Gavin's case, however, does have immediate implications for North Carolina’s controversial HB2 law, which includes a provision requiring transgender students to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificates.

“The effects of this decision on North Carolina are clear,” Maxine Eichner, a University of North Carolina law professor who is an expert on sexual orientation and law, told the Associated Press. “We have the writing on the wall here how that will come out.” 

The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals – which also happens to cover Virginia’s southern neighbor, North Carolina – ruled 2-1 in favor of Gavin, arguing that the Gloucester County School Board violated Title IX, which the Department of Justice defines as “a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.” Public bathrooms have become the battleground for transgender rights across the country, but Gavin's case is the first time that Title IX has reinforced transgender rights at the state level.

“The ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit marks the first time that a federal appeals court has determined that Title IX protects the rights of transgender students to use sex segregated facilities that are consistent with their gender identity,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who represented Gavin in the case, said in a statement. 

“Today’s ruling makes plain what we’ve been saying since the day that HB2 was introduced in the legislature: that is violates Title IX,” Chris Brook, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who is leading the challenging against North Carolina’s HB2, tells the Associated Press. “If you are a recipient of federal education funds you cannot discriminate.” 

Tuesday’s ruling may not have immediate significance for Gavin, but LGBT advocates are confident that the teen’s case will aid their fight against HB2. 

A North Carolina transgender teen filed a lawsuit against a state university arguing that it committed a Title IX violation, similar to the one Gavin faced. And Professor Eichner says Gavin's case could require action on the North Carolina case, and subsequently an immediate injunction blocking HB2. 

“What the plaintiffs would be doing is saying: ‘There are transgender kids out there are experiencing harm as a result of HB2 and who are likely eventually to… have their legal claims resolved in their favor.’ And given that, a court should step in immediately and bar the application of HB2,” Eichner told the AP.

“I think this is going to be a wake-up call for legislators,” Peter Renn, an attorney for Lambda Legal, an LGBT civil rights advocacy group, told The Washington Post. North Carolina lawmakers and other state legislators considering similar bills are “essentially on a collision course with federal law and federal courts.”

Despite the national fallout, Gavin said he has a pretty simple goal. 

“I didn’t set out to make waves,” the teen told reporters after the initial hearing in January. “I set out to use the bathroom.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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