The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Equal Protection

En Banc Eleventh Circuit Rejects Legal Challenge to School District's Bathroom Policy

The Appeals Panel Rejects a Trangender Student's Bid to Use Bathroom Corresponding to the Student's Gender Identity Instead of Biological Sex.


Today the en banc  U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit rejected a transgender student's statutory and constitutional challenge to a school-district policy barring students from using single-sex bathrooms that do not correspond with the student's biological sex (or, as it appears from the facts of the case, the student's sex when initially enrolled). Specifically, the court concluded that the policy neither violates the Equal Protection Clause nor the requirements of Title IX. Insofar as this decision disagrees with that of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in G.G. v. Gloucester County, it would seem a strong candidate for certiorari—assuming that Adams seeks Supreme Court review.

The court split 7-4. Judge Lagoa wrote the majority opinion in Adams v. School Board of St. Johns County, joined by Chief Judge Bill Pryor and Judges Newsom, Branch, Grant, Luck, and Brasher. Judge Lagoa also wrote a separate concurring opinion with additional views. Judges Wilson, Jordan, Rosenbaum, and Jill Pryor dissented, each writing an opinion. (Judges Wilson and Rosenbaum joined Judge Jordan's dissent, and Judge Rosenbaum joined Judge Pryor's dissent in part.) The opinions together span 150 pages.

Excerpts from some of the opinions are below the jump.

Judge Lagoa's opinion for the Court begins:

This case involves the unremarkable—and nearly universal—practice of separating school bathrooms based on biological sex. This appeal requires us to determine whether separating the use of male and female bathrooms in the public schools based on a student's biological sex violates (1) the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1, and (2) Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. We hold that it does not—separating school bathrooms based on biological sex passes constitutional muster and comports with Title IX.

Here is a portion of the analysis:

On appeal, Adams argues that the School Board's bathroom policy violates both the Equal Protection Clause and Title IX. At its core, Adams's claim is relatively straightforward. According to Adams, the School Board's bathroom policy facially discriminates between males and females. Adams, who identifies as a male, argues that the policy violates Adams's rights because, as a transgender student, Adams cannot use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex with which Adams identifies. Which is to say, Adams argues that by facially discriminating between the two sexes, the School Board's bathroom policy also necessarily discriminates against transgender students. We disagree with Adams's theory that separation of bathrooms on the basis of biological sex necessarily discriminates against transgender students.

Indeed, when we apply first principles of constitutional and statutory interpretation, this appeal largely resolves itself. The Equal Protection Clause claim must fail because, as to the sex discrimination claim, the bathroom policy clears the hurdle of intermediate scrutiny and because the bathroom policy does not discriminate against transgender students. The Title IX claim must fail because Title IX allows schools to separate bathrooms by biological sex. We now begin our full analysis with the Equal Protection Clause and end with Title IX.

From the Equal Proection discussion:

because the policy that Adams challenges classifies on the basis of biological sex, it is subject to intermediate scrutiny. To satisfy intermediate scrutiny, the bathroom policy must (1) advance an important governmental objective and (2) be substantially related to that objective. Miss. Univ. for Women, 458 U.S. at 724. The bathroom policy clears both hurdles because the policy advances the important governmental objective of protecting students' privacy in school bathrooms and does so in a manner substantially related to that objective. . . .

Intermediate scrutiny is satisfied when a policy "has a close and substantial bearing on" the governmental objective in question. Nguyen, 533 U.S. at 70. The School Board's bathroom policy is clearly related to—indeed, is almost a mirror of—its objective of protecting the privacy interests of students to use the bathroom away from the opposite sex and to shield their bodies from the opposite sex in the bathroom, which, like a locker room or shower facility, is one of the spaces in a school where such bodily exposure is most likely to occur. Therefore, the School Board's bathroom policy satisfies intermediate scrutiny. . . .

And from the TItle IX discussion:

commensurate with the plain and ordinary meaning of "sex" in 1972, Title IX allows schools to provide separate bathrooms on the basis of biological sex. That is exactly what the School Board has done in this case; it has provided separate bathrooms for each of the biological sexes. And to accommodate transgender students, the School Board has provided single-stall, sex-neutral bathrooms, which Title IX neither requires nor prohibits. Nothing about this bathroom policy violates Title IX. Moreover, under the Spending Clause's clear-statement rule, the term "sex," as used within Title IX, must unambiguously mean something other than biological sex—which it does not—in order to conclude that the School Board violated Title IX. The district court's contrary conclusion is not supported by the plain and ordinary meaning of the word "sex" and provides ample support for subsequent litigants to transform schools' living facilities, locker rooms, showers, and sports teams into sex-neutral areas and activities. Whether Title IX should be amended to equate "gender identity" and "transgender status" with "sex" should be left to Congress—not the courts.

Judge Lagoa's separate concurrence begins as follows:

I concur fully in the majority opinion's determination that the School Board of St. Johns County's unremarkable bathroom policy neither violates the Equal Protection Clause nor Title IX. I write separately to discuss the effect that a departure from a biological understanding of "sex" under Title IX—i.e., equating "sex" to "gender identity" or "transgender status"—would have on girls' and women's rights and sports. . . .

Affirming the district court's order and adopting Adams's definition of "sex" under Title IX to include "gender identity" or "transgender status" would have had repercussions far beyond the bathroom door. There simply is no limiting principle to cabin that definition of "sex" to the regulatory carve-out for bathrooms under Title IX, as opposed to the regulatory carve-out for sports or, for that matter, to the statutory and regulatory carve-outs for living facilities, showers, and locker rooms. And a definition of "sex" beyond "biological sex" would not only cut against the vast weight of drafting-era dictionary definitions and the Spending Clause's clear-statement rule but would also force female student athletes "to compete against students who have a very significant biological advantage, including students who have the size and strength of a male but identify as female." Id. at 1779–80. Such a proposition—i.e., commingling both biological sexes in the realm of female athletics—would "threaten[] to undermine one of [Title IX's] major achievements, giving young women an equal opportunity to participate in sports." Id. at 1779.

Judge Jordan's dissent (joined by Judges Rosenbaum and Wilson) begins:

Two legal propositions in this case are undisputed. The first is that the School Board's unwritten bathroom policy regulates on the basis of gender. The second is that policy, as a gender-based regulation, must satisfy intermediate scrutiny. Given these two propositions, the evidentiary record, and district court's factual findings, the School Board cannot justify its bathroom policy under the Equal Protection Clause of Fourteenth Amendment.

The School Board did not allow Drew Adams, a transgender student, to use the boys' bathroom. As explained below, however, the School Board's policy allows a transgender student just like Drew to use the boys' bathroom if he enrolls after transition with documents listing him as male. Because such a student poses the same claimed safety and privacy concerns as Drew, the School Board's bathroom policy can only be justified by administrative convenience. And when intermediate scrutiny applies, administrative convenience is an insufficient justification for a gender-based classification.

Judge Wilson's dissent begins:

I concur fully with Judge Jordan's analysis and agree that we should analyze the bathroom policy as a gender-based classification. I write separately, with his analysis in mind, to add that even accepting the Majority's argument that the relevant factor is an individual's biological sex, the policy is still discriminatory, and therefore we must engage in a robust Title IX and Equal Protection analysis.

Under the Majority's rationale, the bathroom policy distinguishes between boys and girls on the basis of biological sex—"which the School Board determines by reference to various documents, including birth certificates, that students submit when they first enroll in the School District." Maj. Op. at 4. Because the policy uses these same indicia for all students, according to the Majority, the policy is not discriminatory. See Maj. Op. at 31. Underlying this sex-assigned-at-matriculation bathroom policy, however, is the presumption that biological sex is accurately determinable at birth and that it is a static or permanent biological determination. In other words, the policy presumes it does not need to accept amended documentation because a student's sex does not change. This presumption is both medically and scientifically flawed. After considering a more scientific and medical perspective on biological sex, it is clear that the bathroom policy's refusal to accept updated medical documentation is discriminatory on the basis of sex.

Judge Jill Pryor's dissent, joined by Judge Rosenbaum in part, begins:

Each time teenager Andrew Adams needed to use the bathroom at his school, Allen D. Nease High School, he was forced to endure a stigmatizing and humiliating walk of shame—past the boys' bathrooms and into a single-stall "gender neutral" bathroom. The experience left him feeling unworthy, like "something that needs to be put away." The reason he was prevented from using the boys' bathroom like other boys? He is a transgender boy.

Seeking to be treated as equal to his cisgender boy classmates, Adams sued, arguing that his assignment to the gender neutral bathrooms and not to the boys' bathrooms violated the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. He prevailed in the district court, and a panel of this Court, of which I was a member, affirmed. Today, a majority of my colleagues labels Adams as unfit for equal protection based on his transgender status.

To start, the majority opinion simply declares—without any basis—that a person's "biological sex" is comprised solely of chromosomal structure and birth-assigned sex. So, the majority opinion concludes, a person's gender identity has no bearing on this case about equal protection for a transgender boy. The majority opinion does so in disregard of the record evidence—evidence the majority does not contest—which demonstrates that gender identity is an immutable, biological component of a person's sex.

With the role of gender identity in determining biological sex thus obscured, the majority opinion next focuses on the wrong question: the legality of separating bathrooms by sex. Adams has consistently agreed throughout the pendency of this case—in the district court, on appeal, and during these en banc proceedings—that sex-separated bathrooms are lawful. He has never challenged the School District's policy of having one set of bathrooms for girls and another set of bathrooms for boys. In fact, Adams's case logically depends upon the existence of sex-separated bathrooms. He—a transgender boy—wanted to use the boys' restrooms at Nease High School and sought an injunction that would allow him to use the boys' restrooms.

When the majority opinion reaches Adams's equal protection claim, these errors permeate its analysis. So does another: the majority overlooks that the School District failed to carry its evidentiary burden at trial. Everyone agrees that heightened scrutiny applies. The School District therefore bore the evidentiary burden of demonstrating a substantial relationship between its bathroom policy and its asserted governmental interests. Yet the School District offered no evidence to establish that relationship.

Next, the majority opinion rejects Adams's Title IX claim. Here, too, the majority opinion errs. Even accepting the majority opinion's premise—that "sex" in Title IX refers to what it calls a "biological" understanding of sex—the biological markers of Adams's sex were but-for causes of his discriminatory exclusion from the boys' restrooms at Nease High School. Title IX's statutory and regulatory carveouts do not speak to the issue we face here: the School District's categorical assignment of transgender students to sex-separated restrooms at school based on the School District's discriminatory notions of what "sex" means.

Finally, the majority opinion depicts a cascade of consequences flowing from the mistaken idea that a ruling for Adams will mean the end of sex-separated bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports. But ruling for Adams would not threaten any of these things, particularly if, as I urge here, the ruling was based on the true nature of Adams's challenge and the School District's evidentiary failures at trial.

In sum, the majority opinion reverses the district court without addressing the question presented, without concluding that a single factual finding is clearly erroneous, without discussing any of the unrebutted expert testimony, and without putting the School District to its evidentiary burden. I respectfully dissent.

Judge Rosenbaum's dissent begins:

My colleagues Judge Jill Pryor and Judge Jordan have written excellent dissents explaining why the district court's order here should be affirmed. I join Judge Jordan's dissent in its entirety and Judge Jill Pryor's dissent's equal-protection analysis. I write separately only to emphasize one point that Judge Jill Pryor already persuasively makes: the Majority Opinion's misplaced suggestions that affirming the district court's order on equal-protection grounds would require courts in this Circuit to find that all challenges involving restrooms, locker rooms, and changing facilities must necessarily be upheld are wrong.