RALEIGH, N.C.- Afederal appeals court ruling on transgender bathroom access in public schools threatens a key provision of a North Carolina law limiting protections for the LGBT community.
The court decision has prompted swift condemnation from the state's Republican leadership.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond sided Tuesday with a transgender teen's arguments that a Virginia school board violated Title IX by forbidding him from using the boys' restroom. The interpretation of the federal education law directly affects North Carolina.
The court's ruling imperils a provision in the North Carolina law - called HB2 - that requires transgender students in public schools and universities to use bathrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate, said Maxine Eichner, a University of North Carolina law professor.
"We have the writing on the wall here how that will come out," said Eichner, an expert on sexual orientation and the law.
How quickly the ruling's effects are felt in North Carolina depends on several factors. Among them are possible appeals, a separate lawsuit still pending and interpretation by state lawyers. Additionally, provisions of North Carolina law that fall outside Title IX - such as those regarding discrimination in workplaces, hotels and restaurants - wouldn't be directly affected by Tuesday's ruling, experts said.
Last month in North Carolina, a transgender student and employee in the state's university system filed a lawsuit arguing that the new law violated Title IX. Eichner said they could use Tuesday's ruling to win an injunction blocking the law's provisions on bathroom access in public schools.
"What the plaintiffs would be doing is saying: 'There are transgender kids out there that are experiencing harm as a result of HB2 and who are likely eventually to ... have their legal claims resolved in their favor.' And given that, a court should step in immediately and bar the application of HB2," she said, referring to the law by its legislative name.
Just after the ruling was announced, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said he strongly disagrees with what he calls President Barack Obama's "objective to force our high schools to allow a boy in a woman's or girl's locker room facility."
The Republican governor said the ruling "puts a whole dynamic" on North Carolina's bathroom policy. He said he's seeking an evaluation from state lawyers about whether public schools can continue to implement the state law while the Virginia defendants decide whether to appeal.
North Carolina state Senate leader Phil Berger, also a Republican, took a more combative approach. He decried what he called the "radical social reengineering of our society by forcing middle school-aged girls to share school locker rooms with boys."
Chris Brook, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who's leading the litigation challenging the North Carolina law, declined to discuss specifics about what his legal team's next move would be. Yet he said the appeals court's decision confirms one of their key arguments.
"Today's ruling makes plain what we've been saying since the day that HB2 was introduced in the legislature: that it violates Title IX," he said in a phone interview. "If you are a recipient of federal education funds you cannot discriminate."
He said that while the North Carolina law's provisions on workplace discrimination and public accommodation fall outside of Title IX, Tuesday's ruling gives momentum to all of the law's opponents: "From both a legal and policy standpoint the wind is very plainly at our back here."
In the Virginia case, a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled 2-1 in favor of Gavin Grimm's argument that the Gloucester County School Board's policy violated Title IX. The fourth circuit's ruling applies directly to states in its territory, which also include Maryland, West Virginia and South Carolina.
"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."
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.
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, an attorney for the school board, didn't immediately return a phone message requesting comment.
On another issue, the appeals court ordered the trial judge to reconsider his refusal to issue an order that would allow Grimm to use the boys' restrooms immediately.
Grimm was born female but identifies as male. He was allowed to use the boys' restrooms at the school for several weeks in 2014. But after some parents complained, the school board adopted a policy requiring students to use either the restroom that corresponds with their biological gender or a private, single-stall restroom.
Grimm, 16, said he started refusing to wear girls' clothes by age 6 and told his parents he was transgender in April 2014.
Because the school board could appeal further, it's unclear whether Grimm will be able to use the boys' room anytime soon - but he said he's not worried about that.
"Hopefully this is the beginning of the end of the situation," Grimm said by telephone. "I'm just going to take things one day at a time."