“He says he’s going to withhold funding if schools do not follow the policy,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas said this month. “Well in Texas, he can keep his 30 pieces of silver. We will not yield to blackmail from the president of the United States.” On Wednesday, officials in other states used language that was only slightly less bellicose and colorful. In Louisiana, Attorney General Jeff Landry said he worried that federal officials would “wreak further havoc on our schools,” and he added that the administration’s guidance “puts the safety and security of all of our children in jeopardy.”
The Obama administration on Wednesday faced the first major court challenge to its guidance about the civil rights of transgender students in public schools, as officials from 11 states filed a lawsuit testing both the scope of federal anti-discrimination law and the government’s sweeping interpretation of it.
The officials, in states from Arizona to Georgia to Texas to Wisconsin, brought the case in Federal District Court in Wichita Falls, Tex., and said that the Obama administration had “conspired to turn workplaces and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment, flouting the democratic process, and running roughshod over common-sense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights.”
The lawsuit asked the court to block the federal government from “implementing, applying or enforcing the new rules, regulations and guidance interpretations.”
Wednesday’s litigation fed into the nation’s intensifying, and suddenly fast-moving, debate about the rights of transgender people and, in particular, whether the administration has exceeded the scope of current laws defining discrimination in the United States.
Dena W. Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said officials would review the complaint and that “the federal government has strong legal foundations to uphold the civil rights of transgender Americans.”
Although transgender rights have been litigated for years, the issue shifted into the public consciousness, in part because of the May 13 directive from the Department of Education and the Justice Department that a school “must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity.”
The government also said that a school had an obligation “to provide transgender students equal access to educational programs and activities even in circumstances in which other students, parents or community members raise objections or concerns.” The officials added that “the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students.”
The guidance, signed by two of the government’s most senior civil rights officials, did not carry the force of law, but many conservatives responded with outrage at one of its implications: that federal officials, effectively prodded by President Obama, might deny money to schools that defy the recommendations.