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Federal Judge Backs Civil Rights Protections for Transgender Students

A federal district judge has ruled that federal law protects transgender students from discrimination in schools, and that a Maryland student's lawsuit may proceed against a school district that barred him from using the locker room that corresponds to his gender identity.

U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III of Baltimore ruled on Monday that bias against transgender students is a form of sex-based discrimination that is barred by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 as well as by the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause.

The ruling comes in the case of a 15-year-old student identified as M.A.B., who was born female but identifies as male. The boy attends St. Michaels Middle High School, a public school in Talbot County, Md., where administrators have barred him from using the boys' locker room to change for gym class and instead require him to use a gender-neutral restroom to change.

(The district initially barred M.A.B. from using the boys' restrooms as well, but relented after court rulings in the Gavin Grimm case from Virginia, which like Maryland is overseen by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.)

M.A.B. contends that using the gender-neutral restroom to change takes extra time and has caused problems when he has reported late for gym class. The school district argues that allowing M.A.B. into the boys' locker room would violate the privacy rights of the other boys.

Russell's March 12 opinion in M.A.B. v. Board of Education of Talbot County rejected the school district's motion to dismiss the student's suit and held that the policy likely violates Title IX and the equal-protection clause. 

The school's policy "singles M.A.B. out, quite literally because it does not apply to anyone else at the high school, and marks him as different for being transgender."

The judge denied a preliminary injunction to allow M.A.B. to use the boys' locker rooms because the student is not enrolled in physical education this school year. The student may seek such an injunction next year, when he is scheduled to have gym class again, if the case is not resolved on the merits before then, Russell said.

Russell's decision on Title IX is consistent with the way most federal courts have ruled in recent years. And the judge noted that one federal appeals court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, has ruled that discrimination against transgender students also violates the equal-protection clause.

Russell did not discuss two other recent federal appeals court rulings that have extended federal civil rights protections to gay workers and transgender workers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Other Title VII rulings have been part of the foundation for courts analyzing transgender claims under Title IX, and the more recent Title VII decisions only bolster the conclusion that discrimination against gay students and transgender students are a form of sex-based discrimination prohibited by Title IX.

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