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Wisconsin case undermines even the scaled back bathroom bill

Special session or not, this could be a big deal.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit likely just handed the Supreme Court a new case about a transgender student to consider. The Court’s opinion, issued Tuesday, eviscerates a Wisconsin school’s arguments for discriminating against one of its students.

Ashton Whitaker (“Ash”), now a 17-year-old senior, first filed suit against Kenosha Unified School District a little over a year ago, arguing that the school was illegally discriminating against him by prohibiting him from accessing the boys’ restrooms. He had previously used the restroom for six months without incident before the new policy was implemented. Ash was instead forced to using single-stall restrooms that were very far away from his classes and that further stigmatized him among his classmates. His bathroom usage was then policed, with the school even considering requiring him to wear bright green wristbands or stickers to easily identify him, though it never actually took that step.

Back in September, U.S. District Judge Pamela Pepper granted Ash a preliminary injunction against the policy, ensuring he could use the facilities that match his gender identity throughout his senior year. The school appealed, but Tuesday’s ruling upholds the injunction, allowing Ash to finish out the school year without being segregated because he is transgender.

The decision is very unforgiving of the school’s arguments against Ash’s integration, to say the least.

For example, the district claimed that Ash’s harm was “self-inflicted” because he didn’t take advantage of the accommodations that were provided. The decision noted that this argument fails for a number of reasons. First, segregating him to a separate bathroom caused anxiety related to his transition, as well as the fact that it invited scrutiny from his peers. This anxiety prompted Ash to avoid drinking water to avoid using the restrooms, which exacerbated physical symptoms he experiences due to his vasovagal syncope, a condition that causes him to experience fainting and/or seizures when dehydrated.

This was all in addition to the fact that the bathrooms were on the opposite side of the building from his classes. “Therefore,” the Court wrote, “he was faced with the unenviable choice between using a bathroom that would further stigmatize him and cause him to miss class time, or avoid use of the bathroom altogether at the expense of his health.”

The district had in turn argued that allowing Ash to use the boys’ bathrooms would somehow infringe on “the privacy rights of all 22,160 students” in the district. The Court dismissed this argument as being “based upon sheer conjecture and abstraction.”

Ash had used the boys’ bathroom for six months without incident. It was only after a teacher — not a student — noticed him using the bathroom that the policy was implemented. The district also claimed to have received just one complaint, and it was from a parent — again, not a student. The Court further countered that this reasoning “ignores the practical reality of how Ash, as a transgender boy, uses the bathroom: by entering a stall and closing the door.”

The parallel to Texas isn’t exact because it was school district policy in Wisconsin that was at issue, not state law, but as Vox explains, it’s the remedy that really matters.

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 Seventh Circuit Court’s case does not have the limitation of being attached to the guidance or any other regulation that the Trump administration could rescind. Instead, it poses the straight question: Are trans people protected under federal law? If other courts agree with the Seventh Circuit Court, that could reshape the face of civil rights laws in America — and help fill a void that’s left trans people legally unprotected from discrimination across most of the US.

Under most states’ laws and federal law, trans people aren’t explicitly protected from discrimination in the workplace, housing, public accommodations, and schools. This means that a person can be fired from a job, evicted from a home, kicked out of a business, or denied the correct bathroom facility just because an employer, landlord, business owner, or school principal doesn’t approve of the person’s gender identity.

LGBTQ advocates argue, however, that federal civil rights law should already shield trans people from discrimination.

The argument: Discrimination against someone based on their gender identity is fundamentally rooted in sex-based expectations. For example, if someone discriminates against a trans woman, that’s largely based on the expectation that a person designated male at birth should identify as a man — a belief built on an idea of what a person of a certain sex assigned at birth should be like. So since federal civil rights laws, such as Title IX, ban sex discrimination in the workplace, housing, and schools, they should ban discrimination against trans people in these settings as well.

This isn’t just a wild interpretation by LGBTQ advocates; there’s legal precedent for it. Joshua Block, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who worked on Grimm’s case, cited a 1998 Supreme Court case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Inc., in which the Court unanimously agreed that bans on sex discrimination prohibit same-sex sexual harassment. Same-sex sexual harassment was not something the authors of federal civil rights laws considered, but it’s something, the Supreme Court said, that a plain reading of the law protects.

Oncale says that’s irrelevant whether [Congress] contemplated it,” Block previously told me. “That’s not how laws work. This is literal sex discrimination. Whether or not that’s what Congress was focused on doesn’t make it any less a type of discrimination covered by the statute.”

Seventh Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams embraced this view in her ruling on Tuesday: “A policy that requires an individual to use a bathroom that does not conform with his or her gender identity punishes that individual for his or her gender non‐conformance, which in turn violates Title IX.”

But the court went even further — arguing that the Kenosha Unified School District’s actions violated the 14th Amendment. The school district claimed that it treats all boys and girls equally — meaning it forces them all to use certain bathrooms based on the sex they were assigned at birth instead of their gender identity. But Williams ruled that this is “untrue,” adding, “Rather, the School District treats transgender students like Ash, who fail to conform to the sex‐based stereotypes associated with their assigned sex at birth, differently.”

You can see how that would apply to Texas, or any other state that doesn’t already have a non-discrimination law that includes transgender people. It’s just theoretical at this point because Texas isn’t in the Seventh Circuit, but the case is a road map for any litigation that would result from the passage of even the watered-down bathroom bill that could have passed in the regular session. That won’t stop Dan Patrick, of course, and Lord only knows what the Fifth Circuit might do once such a case crossed their threshold, but the point here is that a precedent now exists, and anything the bad guys do from here will have to take that into account. RG Ratcliffe and Buzzfeed have more.

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