The Slatest

Federal Court Emphatically Shoots Down Anti-Trans Lawsuit in Rare Ruling From the Bench

Aidan DeStefano, a transgender teenager whom Alliance Defending Freedom tried to prohibit from using the proper bathroom at school.
Aidan DeStefano, a transgender teenager whom Alliance Defending Freedom tried to prohibit from using the boys’ bathroom at school.
Aidan DeStefano/ACLU

Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative law firm that seeks to legalize anti-LGBTQ discrimination through the courts, suffered a swift and severe defeat on Thursday after the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against its effort to prohibit transgender students from using the proper bathroom at school. What’s more remarkable than the ruling itself, however, is the way it was delivered: In a highly unusual move, the court announced its decision from the bench less than an hour after oral arguments—the judicial equivalent of saying “hard pass.”

Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, the case handed down on Thursday, is essentially the inverse of more familiar trans rights cases, like that of Gavin Grimm. In 2016, Pennsylvania’s Boyertown Area School District decided to implement a trans-inclusive policy that allowed students to use the restroom facilities that correspond to their gender identity. It introduced this policy to accommodate trans high school student Aidan DeStefano and to comply with the Obama administration’s guidance (which the Trump administration later revoked). Alliance Defending Freedom sued on behalf of several students who said they felt uncomfortable sharing facilities with a transgender classmate. The firm argued that the new policy violated their constitutional right to privacy, as well as Title IX, a federal statute that prohibits sex discrimination in education.

This claim, which ADF has unsuccessfully raised elsewhere, is bizarre if not downright trollish. Multiple federal courts, including the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, have ruled that transgender students have the right under Title IX and the 14th Amendment to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. Through lawsuits like Doe v. Boyertown, ADF almost seems to be mocking these decisions, asserting that, to the contrary, non-transgender students have a right not to use facilities alongside their trans peers. Trans-inclusive policies, ADF claims, somehow infringe upon anti-trans students’ right to “bodily privacy” and must therefore be blocked by the courts.

No court has yet accepted this argument, yet ADF keeps pushing it. When the federal district court emphatically rejected the group’s suit against the Boyertown Area School District, it appealed to the 3rd Circuit. (The American Civil Liberties Union stepped in to defend the policy.) A three-judge panel for the court held oral arguments Thursday, and typically, it would subsequently write an opinion to be issued in the coming weeks or months. But shortly after arguments ended, the court declared that it would, in an extremely rare step, issue a ruling from the bench. It then announced that it had ruled against ADF. The judges will issue a written opinion this summer elaborating upon their reasoning.

Thursday’s unexpectedly rapid decision was partly practical: The judges explained that they wanted to rule before Boyertown students graduate later this month, and they clearly did not want this uncertainty hanging over the heads of trans students who only wished to use school facilities in peace. But the speedy turnaround is also an elegant rebuke to ADF’s absurd and offensive arguments. The organization is cluttering up dockets across the country with frivolous lawsuits transparently designed to roll back hard-won rights for transgender students under the guise of protecting individual dignity. Its lawyers, many of whom are quite smart, should know better than to press these flimsy claims in federal court. And the judges of the 3rd Circuit were right not to pretend that the ADF’s position had even an ounce of merit.

One more thing

You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.

Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.

Join Slate Plus