Atlanta-based U.S. appeals court to rehear transgender bathroom case

December 2019 portrait of Drew Adams in downtown Atlanta. In July 2021, a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 in favor of Adams, a transgender student who sought access to the boys’ bathroom at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (HYOSUB SHIN/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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December 2019 portrait of Drew Adams in downtown Atlanta. In July 2021, a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 in favor of Adams, a transgender student who sought access to the boys’ bathroom at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (HYOSUB SHIN/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

The federal appeals court in Atlanta on Monday vacated a ruling that said transgender high school students must be granted access to bathrooms that correspond with their identity.

This means the closely watched case will now be heard by the entire 12-member 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sets precedents for Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Last month, in a 2-1 ruling, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of Andrew Adams, a transgender student who sought access to the boys’ bathroom at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

That opinion, written for the second time by Judge Beverly Martin, found the school’s access policy violated equal protection and Title IX, a federal civil rights law passed in 1972. A year earlier, Martin had ruled in favor of Adams, but she reissued the opinion in “an effort,” she said, “to get broader support among” court colleagues.

Yet Chief Judge Bill Pryor issued a strong dissent, just as he did against Martin’s first decision. This clearly indicated Martin had not gotten the support she needed to prevent the decidedly conservative full court from vacating her more recent decision and hearing the case anew.

In his dissent, Pryor said there is nothing unlawful under the Constitution or federal law about a policy that separates school bathrooms on the basis of sex. The school district’s policy “substantially advances its objective to protect children from exposing their unclothed bodies to the opposite sex,” he wrote.

If the full 11th Circuit rules in the high school’s favor, it is possible the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately hear the case because there is a split in the circuits. Both the federal appeals courts in Richmond, Virginia, and Chicago previously issued rulings that allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their identity.

In a statement, Tara Borelli, a Lambda Legal lawyer who represents Adams, said prior court rulings “have already gotten it right: transgender kids deserve equal dignity and respect in schools. … We believe that principle will stand the test of time.”

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