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Teen wins transgender rights suit in federal court

NBC News logo NBC News 8/11/2020 Tim Fitzsimons

a person sitting on a bench in front of a book shelf: Drew Adams. (Lambda Legal) © Provided by NBC News Drew Adams. (Lambda Legal) After a three-year legal battle, a transgender teen in Florida has emerged victorious in a federal lawsuit over equal access to restrooms.

On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld a lower court ruling in favor of the teen, Drew Adams, 19, ordering the school board in St. Johns County, Florida, to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity.

Adams enrolled at Allen D. Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, a seaside community in the northeastern Florida, in the fall of 2015. Because he is transgender, the Jacksonville-area school prohibited him from using the boys' bathroom, instead requiring him to use the girls’ restroom or single-stall bathrooms.

Adams, who has since graduated, filed suit in 2017 and won his case in federal court in 2018. In 2019, his school district appealed, and over a dozen major corporations sent an amicus brief supporting Adams’ Title IX claim. Title IX bans sex discrimination in "any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

"A public school may not punish its students for gender nonconformity. Neither may a public school harm transgender students by establishing arbitrary, separate rules for their restroom use," Judge William H. Pryor wrote in Friday's decision. "The evidence at trial confirms that Mr. Adams suffered both these indignities. The record developed in the District Court shows that the School Board failed to honor Mr. Adams’s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and Title IX."

The 11th Circuit ruling, however, does not definitively mark the end of Adams’ legal battle. Should it choose to do so, the school district could petition the full 11th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Course to review the case, though either court could refuse to do so.

Adams said he hopes Friday's decision "helps save other transgender students from having to go through" the "painful and humiliating experience" he was subjected to in high school

“High school is hard enough without having your school separate you from your peers and mark you as inferior,” Adams said in a statement shared by Lambda Legal, the LGBTQ legal group that worked on his case.

Although a lower court affirmed Adams' rights in 2018, legal developments since then further strengthened his case even as his school district continued its appeal, according to Paul Castillo, a member of Adams’ legal team and a students-rights strategist for Lambda Legal.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, that workplace discrimination against LGBTQ people is prohibited by existing nondiscrimination laws — specifically Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex.

The landmark decision was cited in Friday's ruling.

“Bostock has great import for Mr. Adams’s Title IX claim,” Judge William H. Pryor wrote. “Although Title VII and Title IX are separate substantive provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, both titles prohibit discrimination against individuals on the basis of sex.”

Emphasizing the historically significant nature of Adams' case, Castillo said, “To my knowledge, this is the first post-Bostock decision that analyzes another sex discrimination statute."

Christina Langston, a spokesperson for the St. Johns County School District, declined to comment, saying, “We are still in pending litigation so it remains inappropriate to comment on or try this case in the media.”

In the Bostock decision, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the the majority opinion that “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”

Many federal statutes prohibit sex discrimination using the same language as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and as a result, legal advocates hope to sue to enforce existing bans on sex discrimination for LGBTQ people, too.

Castillo said that since Bostock’s Title VII claim “confirmed that workplace discrimination against transgender people is contrary to law,” he said last week’s 11th Circuit ruling “should mean that discrimination is not to be tolerated in schools.”

The 11th Circuit contains Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

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