Federal Appeals Court Issues Sweeping Decision Protecting Transgender Rights

A decision that cannot be ignored will now probably head to the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

There’s no telling what the Supreme Court may ultimately decide in the area of transgender rights, but SCOTUS will no longer be able to dodge the issue as it did earlier this year in the case of a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding the right of a Virginia student to gain access to the school bathroom congruent with his gender identity.

In that case, the lower court was relying on an Obama administration “guidance” document interpreting Title IX sex-discrimination protections, which the Trump administration subsequently rescinded. So SCOTUS sent it back with instructions to review the decision in light of the new guidance.

Today, however, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a sweeping decision regarding a Wisconsin student facing similar school rules restricting bathroom access. And this decision was based not on some obsolete federal-agency document but on the court’s own reading of Title IX, and more importantly, of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. As Vox’s German Lopez explains, the decision sets a very broad precedent:

The ruling has big implications: If existing federal law and the 14th Amendment shield trans people from discrimination, then it’s not just Whitaker’s rights that are protected here, but all trans students’. And if bans against sex discrimination in particular apply to trans people, then it’s not just students’ rights that are protected, but all trans people who face discrimination in other settings where sex discrimination is banned — so not just schools, but the workplace and housing as well.

The decision was a classic better-late-than-never ruling: The student in question, Ash Whitaker, is in his final week of high school before graduating.

Now we will have to see how quickly SCOTUS takes this up, and what it does with the Seventh Circuit’s broad argument for statutory and constitutional protections for transgender people.

7th Circuit Court Decision Protects Transgender Rights