RICHMOND, Va. --A federal appeals court has overturned a policy barring a transgender student from using the boys' restrooms at his Virginia high school.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the Gloucester County School Board policy is discriminatory. A federal judge had rejected Gloucester High School student Gavin Grimm's sex discrimination claim.
The appeals court's ruling establishes legal precedent in the five states in the 4th Circuit, including North Carolina, which faces a lawsuit challenging a new state law requiring transgender public school students to use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex on their birth certificate.
"I feel so relieved and vindicated by the court's ruling," Grimm said in a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents him. "Today's decision gives me hope that my fight will help other kids avoid discriminatory treatment at school."
Grimm was born female but identifies as male. After complaints, the school board adopted a policy requiring students to use public restrooms corresponding with their biological gender.
Grimm, 16, said he started refusing to wear girls' clothes by age 6 and told his parents he was transgender in April 2014.
Grimm's parents helped him legally change his name and a psychologist diagnosed him with gender dysphoria, characterized by stress stemming from conflict between one's gender identity and assigned sex at birth. Grimm began hormone treatment to deepen his voice and give him a more masculine appearance.
School officials told CBS affiliate WTVR they received complaints from dozens of parents in regards to the bathroom issue.
"It shall be the practice of the (Gloucester County Public Schools) to provide male and female restroom and locker room facilities in its schools, and the use of said facilities shall be limited to the corresponding biological genders, and students with gender identity issues shall be provided an alternative private facility," the school board said in its ruling on the issue.
At that time, the school also built several unisex private restrooms for all students to use.
Grimm said for him, this battle is about much more than just using a certain restroom.
"I'm banned from a gender specific place and it is a big issue for me, this is one way the school is saying, we do not believe you are legitimate, and that is a big deal to me," he said.
The case of Grimm has been especially closely watched since North Carolina enacted a law last month that bans transgender people from using public restrooms that correspond to their gender identity. That law also bans cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances, a response to an ordinance recently passed in Charlotte.
In the Virginia case, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- which also covers North Carolina -- ruled 2-1 to overturn the Gloucester County School Board's policy, saying it violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination in schools. A federal judge had previously rejected Grimm's sex discrimination claim, but the court said that judge ignored a U.S. Department of Education regulation that transgender students in public schools must be allowed to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
"We agree that it has indeed been commonplace and widely accepted to separate public restrooms, locker rooms, and shower facilities on the basis of sex," the court wrote in its opinion. "It is not apparent to us, however, that the truth of these propositions undermines the conclusion we reach regarding the level of deference due to the department's interpretation of its own regulations."
Maxine Eichner, a University of North Carolina law professor who is an expert on sexual orientation and the law, said the ruling -- the first of its kind by a federal appeals court -- means the provision of North Carolina's law pertaining to restroom use by transgender students in schools that receive federal funds also is invalid.
"The effects of this decision on North Carolina are clear," she said, adding that a judge in that state will have no choice but to apply the appeals court's ruling.
Other states in the 4th Circuit are Maryland, West Virginia and South Carolina. While those states are directly affected by the appeals court's ruling, Eichner said the impact will be broader.
"It is a long and well-considered opinion that sets out the issues," she said. "It will be influential in other circuits."
Appeals court Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, who was appointed to the appeals court by Republican President George H.W. Bush, wrote in a dissenting opinion that the majority's opinion "completely tramples on all universally accepted protections of privacy and safety that are based on the anatomical differences between the sexes."
The majority opinion was written by Judge Henry F. Floyd and joined by Judge Andre M. Davis, both appointees of Democratic President Barack Obama. The Richmond-based court was long considered the nation's most conservative federal appeals court, but a series of vacancies in the last few years has allowed Obama to reshape it. Including the two senior judges, the court now has 10 judges appointed by Democrats and seven by Republicans.
The school board could appeal the decision to the full appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court. David Patrick Corrigan, attorney for the school board, did not immediately respond to a telephone message.