The Supreme Court put on temporary hold Wednesday a lower court's ruling that would have allowed a transgender teen to use the school bathroom that matches his gender identity, the latest development in an ongoing Virginia case that could bring transgender bathroom issues to the high court for the first time amid ongoing national debate.
The Gloucester County School Board in Virginia had filed an emergency request to block the order as part of an effort to prevent Gavin Grimm, who was born female but identifies as male, from using the boys restroom when the school year begins in September.
The high court's 5-to-3 decision means that Gavin will not be allowed to use his preferred bathroom for at least the first half of his senior year, Josh Block, his attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Associated Press. Mr. Block expressed optimism that Gavin will eventually win his case, but said the temporary block would leave Gavin "stigmatized and isolated from the rest of his peers just because he is transgender" at the start of the school year.
By the end of August, the school board says it will formally request that the Supreme Court review the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which had allowed Gavin to use the boys restroom. The high court's decision whether to hear the case, however, would still be months away.
"The school board welcomes the Supreme Court's decision as the new school year approaches," the Gloucester County School Board said in a news release. "The board continues to believe that its resolution of this complex matter fully considered the interests of all students and parents."
This is the latest development on both Grimm's case and a wider debate over transgender bathroom usage in schools. In May, the federal Justice and Education Departments issued a directive ordering schools to allow pupils to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity, based on an interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 that considers transgender rights covered by Title IX's protections against sex-based discrimination.
However, 13 states have sued, calling the interpretation an "overreach", as The Christian Science Monitor reported in June. Many schools have struggled to find a path forward, especially in states where state or local officials passed their own rules that countered the Obama administration's directive.
"If you're a district that's sailing along, everything is fine, and now all of a sudden you have two mandates – one from Mom and one from Dad – what do you do?" Jeff Nash, a spokesman for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School District in North Carolina, told the Monitor at the time. "And it's not like they're talking about two different shades of blue. One wants blue, the other red."
The issue has divided parents, with parents of transgender children and allies saying it is harmful, and potentially dangerous, to require the children to use the bathrooms of their biological sex.
"People proposing bathroom laws say it's to protect women and little girls from predatory men," Debi Jackson, a Kansas mother of an 8-year-old daughter, who was born biologically male, told the Monitor in May. "The obvious danger to Avery is that these laws would force her – looking like any other 8-year-old girl – into a men's restroom alone, and potentially right into the hands of one of those very predators."
Other parents, however, are concerned about privacy, for transgender students as well as their peers – particularly when students are teenagers.
"If a student is transitioning or has already undergone surgery to change their gender, I would be comfortable letting them use the restroom of their choice," Kristin Samadi of Brooklyn, N.Y., told the Monitor in May. But "if someone enters a female restroom looking masculine, I think it might make a lot of girls uncomfortable – and probably vice versa," she added.
In the Virginia case, the Supreme Court's hold does not necessarily indicate that it would rule in favor of the school board if it agrees to take the case this fall.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who sided with typically conservative justices in the 5-to-3 decision to place block the lower court's order, wrote that he approved the hold "application as a courtesy," as The Los Angeles Times reports.
"In light of the facts that four justices have voted to grant the application referred to the court by the chief justice, that we are currently on recess and that granting the stay will preserve the status quo," Justice Breyer wrote, "I vote to grant the application as a courtesy."
While the hold is in place, Gavin will return to using a private restroom at school. If the Supreme Court does not hear the case, the lower court's order to allow him to use the boys restroom will be reinstated.
This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.