The case revolves around the interpretation of a federal regulation that bans discrimination “on the basis of sex” in schools that receive federal money. The legal question is whether it can also ban discrimination based on gender identity.
The fate of the most controversial case the Supreme Court has agreed to decide this term is uncertain now that the Department of Education (DOE) has issued a “Dear Colleague” letter withdrawing a previous letter requiring school districts to allow transgender students to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity.
Title IX prohibits school districts that receive federal funds from discriminating “on the basis of sex.” A Title IX regulation states that, if school districts maintain separate bathrooms (locker rooms, showers, etc.) “on the basis of sex,” they must provide comparable facilities for the other sex. In a 2015 letter DOE interpreted the Title IX regulation to mean that, if schools provide for separate boys’ and girls’ bathrooms, transgender students must be allowed to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity. The new “Dear Colleague” letter takes no position on whether the term “sex” in Title IX includes gender identity.
The Supreme Court has agreed to decide two questions in Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. First, should it defer to DOE’s letter interpreting the regulation? Second, putting the letter aside, should the Title IX regulation be interpreted as DOE suggests?
G.G. is biologically female but identifies as a male. The Gloucester County School Board prevented him from using the boy’s bathroom. He sued the district, arguing that it discriminated against him in violation of Title IX. The Fourth Circuit Court ruled in favor of G.G, giving Auer deference to DOE’s letter.
Per Auer v. Robbins (1997), a court generally must defer to an agency’s interpretation of its ambiguous regulations. According to the Fourth Circuit, the Title IX regulation is ambiguous because it is “susceptible to more than one plausible reading because it permits both the Board’s reading (determining maleness or femaleness with reference exclusively to genitalia) and the Department’s interpretation (determining maleness or femaleness with reference to gender identity).”
Despite the 2015 letter being rescinded, both parties still want the Supreme Court to decide this case. On SCOTUSblog, Amy Howe describes some of the Court’s options: “Among other things, they could send the case back to the Fourth Circuit for it to weigh in more fully on the Title IX question in light of the government’s changed position, or they could forge ahead and rule on that question themselves. At the very least, we should know more about the justices’ inclinations when they hear oral arguments in the case next month, if not before.”
Putting aside the factual context of this case, state and local governments, acting through the State and Local Legal Center, have criticized Auer deference in Supreme Court amicus briefs. The Gloucester County School Board asked the Supreme Court to decide whether to overturn Auer, but the Court refused to consider this question.
Two states – Tennessee and Arkansas – have passed laws that preempt local non-discrimination provisions.
“Preemption efforts – where state law nullifies a municipal ordinance or authority – lead to a loss of local control and can have far-reaching economic and social impacts in our communities,” said National League of Cities (NLC) CEO and Executive Director Clarence E. Anthony. NLC’s latest report, City Rights in an Era of Preemption, examines the prevalence of state preemption across the country.
About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC), which files Supreme Court amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the Big Seven national organizations representing state and local governments. She is a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.