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Texas Lawsuit Over Transgender Rules Gets First Day In Court

Robert Hart
Texas Tribune
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is leading the 13-state lawsuit against the Obama administration's transgender student guidance.

Texas is taking the Obama administration to court again on Friday. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking a federal judge in Fort Worth to temporarily block federal rules that would let transgender kids use the bathroom or locker room that matches their gender identity. The Obama administration says Texas is jumping the gun.

It started with a letter, sent in May by the Obama Administration to public schools offering guidance on transgender students. And it generated a lot of heat.

It said transgender kids should be treated according to their gender identity in all aspects of school life – from the restroom they use to the gender listed on school records to which athletic team they can join. If districts forced transgender students to use bathrooms associated with the sex on their birth certificates, that would be discrimination, and districts would be risking federal funds.

It didn’t take long for conservatives in Texas to punch back.

“We will not be blackmailed by the president’s 30 pieces of silver. We will not sell out our children to the federal government,” he said.

That’s Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on the day the letter came out. The Texas Attorney General’s office reached out to school districts, looking to find one that would enact a policy that violated the terms of the letter. Tiny Harrold ISD, up near the Oklahoma border, did just that. Here’s Attorney General Ken Paxton at a press conference announcing the lawsuit.

“Unfortunately, that policy placed them at odds with those federal directives, which were handed down this month. That means the district is in the cross hairs of the Obama administration,” he said.

A dozen states signed on to the lawsuit arguing the administration’s guidance is a fundamental re-writing of federal law. Paxton said it is up to congress to say whether gender identity should get protections under Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in education.

“In fact, some member of Congress have attempted to make that sort of legal change, as early as 1974 and as recently as 2015. Each time, they failed,” he said.

The administration argued in legal filings that Texas is getting ahead of itself. It said the letter was guidance, it isn’t legally binding, and the administration hasn’t tried to enforce the policy. So, government lawyers said, Texas doesn’t have standing to ask for an injunction. Lawyers for Texas shot back that the administration’s threats of pulling school funding is enforcement enough.

This lawsuit is one of several flashpoints in a larger battle over transgender rights. Administration officials have argued they have the authority to interpret federal civil rights laws banning sex discrimination so that they include gender identity.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch called out a North Carolina law making it illegal to use a bathroom that doesn’t correspond with the sex on a person’s birth certificate. She said it’s about more than just bathrooms.

“This is about the dignity and the respect that we accord our fellow citizens, and the laws that we as a people and as a country have enacted to protect them,” she said.

At a PBS town hall in June, President Obama said that transgender people are coming out at younger ages and they face bullying and ostracism in the classroom. Schools, he said, have been asking his administration for guidance.

“My best interpretation of what our laws and our obligations are is that we should try to accommodate these kids so that they are not in a vulnerable situation,” he said.

Obama said he did not seek out a fight over which bathrooms transgender students should use. But in Texas, he got one.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.