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Lawsuit: Tennessee Anti-Trans School Restroom Law Is Unconstitutional

Tennessee State Capitol
Tennessee State Capitol

The HRC Foundation and two law firms filed the suit on behalf of two young trans people and their families.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation and two law firms have filed a lawsuit on behalf of two transgender children and their families to challenge Tennessee's anti-trans school restroom law.

House Bill 1233, which Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed into law in May, denies trans students and staff in public schools access to multi-occupancy restrooms and changing rooms aligning with their gender identity and makes it grounds for legal action if someone "encounters a person of the opposite sex" -- a definition that includes trans people -- in a single-sex, multi-occupancy facility. The statute, titled the School Facilities Law, went into effect July 1.

The suit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee by the foundation -- the educational arm of the HRC -- and the law firms of Linklaters LLP and Branstetter, Stranch, and Jennings PLLC. It contends that the law violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law banning sex discrimination in education.

"By singling out transgender students for disfavored treatment and explicitly writing discrimination against transgender people into State law, the School Facilities Law violates the most basic guarantees of equal protection" under the Constitution and Title IX," the suit says.

The plaintiffs in the suit are a 14-year-old trans boy identified by the pseudonym Alex and a 6-year-old trans girl using the pseudonym Ariel, and both children's parents.

"When I started seventh grade, I just wanted to blend in," Alex said in an HRC press release. "Having to use a 'special' bathroom made me stand out because other kids would wonder why I didn't just use the boys' bathroom. It was also a pain because the bathrooms I was allowed to use were not close to any of my classes. So I just stopped having anything to drink during the day. It stresses me out that I'll have to deal with this all over again at my new school." Alex, an honor student, will start high school this fall.

"We didn't know we had a trans child when we relocated to Tennessee -- if Alex had come out to us before the move, we wouldn't have come here," his parents, identified as Amy and Jeff, said in the press release. "It makes [us] so angry that our elected officials have chosen to target trans kids. If lawmakers were to take the time to get to know [our] son, they would see that he is an amazing, smart, caring, creative person who has so much to offer. Alex just wants to be a regular kid. He should be able to look forward to starting high school without the added layer of anxiety about something as basic as using the bathroom." The family moved to Tennessee in 2018.

Ariel, who began expressing her gender identity at age 2, will be starting first grade in the fall. She doesn't understand why she won't be allowed to use the girls' restroom. "The state's political leaders are making Tennessee a dangerous place for our daughter, and other children like her," her parents, identified as Julie and Ross, said in the release. "We are extremely worried about her future here, and the bills that are being passed have put us in panic mode. They are attacking children that cannot defend themselves for what appears to be political gain over a nonexistent problem. We wish our leaders would take the time to speak with transgender youth and adults -- instead, their fear of the unknown is unnecessarily leading their actions and causing irreparable harm to these children." They are considering moving to another state, they said.

The School Facilities Law was one of five pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ or specifically anti-trans legislation approved by Tennessee lawmakers and the governor this year. One, which requires businesses to post warning signs if they allow trans people to use the restrooms or changing rooms consistent with their gender identity, has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge due to a lawsuit brought against it. The others bar trans students from competing on the school sports teams for their gender identity; restrict health care for trans youth; and require schools to give parents a 30-day notice about any lessons that deal with sexual orientation or gender identity and allow the parents to opt their children out of that instruction.

There has been a rash of such legislation in states around the nation this year; the HRC Foundation has filed suit against Florida's trans-exclusionary sports law, while the American Civil Liberties Union has brought suit against other statutes, including the Tennessee warning sign law.

"The common thread that ties our legal challenges together is our commitment to protect our community's most vulnerable -- children," HRC President Alphonso David said in the release. "The Tennessee law, which denies transgender young people the ability to use facilities consistent with their gender identity, is not only morally reprehensible but devoid of any sound legal justification and cannot withstand legal scrutiny. Courts have time and again ruled against these dangerous and discriminatory laws and we are going to fight in court to strike down this one and protect the civil rights of transgender and nonbinary young people. With our representation of two transgender kids ... we are sending a strong message of support for all transgender and nonbinary children across the country -- you matter, and your legal rights should be respected."

The suit names as defendants Gov. Lee, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, the Wilson County Board of Education; Wilson County Schools Director Jeff Luttrell; and others responsible for enforcing the School Facilities Law. The Tennessean sought comment from the attorney general's office, where a spokeswoman said only that staffers are reviewing the suit.

There is precedent in trans student Gavin Grimm's suit against his Virginia school district, which prevented him from using the boys' restroom. A federal appeals court ruled last year that the district violated Grimm's constitutional rights, and this year the Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, therefore letting it stand.

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