Higher Education Law Report
U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education Rescind Obama Era Guidance on Transgender Students
February 23, 2017
On February 22, 2017, in its first “Dear Colleague Letter,” the Trump Administration withdrew existing U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education guidance that interpreted Title IX’s protections against sex discrimination to encompass discrimination based on gender identity and transgender status. In this joint Dear Colleague Letter (“February 22 DCL”), the Departments point to recent litigation challenging the previous administration’s interpretation of Title IX as applied to transgender students as reason to withdraw the existing guidance so that the Departments could “further and more completely consider the legal issues involved.” The Departments specifically cite to the Fourth Circuit’s decision in G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, which deferred to the Obama era Departments’ interpretation that Title IX’s protections against sex discrimination encompass discrimination based on gender identity and transgender status, as well as the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas’ nationwide injunction of the federal guidance in State of Texas et al. v. United States of America et al. States’ Rights and Local Educational Policy In essence the February 22 DCL initiates an analytical shift. The Departments no longer discuss transgender students’ rights as a question of civil rights, but rather, now, as one of educational policy and States’ rights: “the Departments believe that, in this context, there must be due regard for the primary role of the States and local school districts in establishing educational policy.” The February 22 DCL does not replace the guidance it withdraws with new policy or requirements. While it rescinds protections for transgender students, in the penultimate paragraph the Departments note, generally, that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will “continue its duty under law to hear all claims of discrimination and will explore every appropriate opportunity to protect all students and to encourage civility in our classrooms.” It is unclear what this statement means for transgender students in the context of this rollback document. There is nothing in the February 22 DCL that prevents institutions from continuing to enforce their current transgender policies, including nondiscrimination policies that are consistent with the Departments’ 2016 guidance. However, institutions in states with laws that require persons to use the single-sex facilities that correspond to their biological sex, rather than their gender identity, could be compelled to change institutional policies to reflect state standards. The Trump Administration’s decision to give states and local districts the responsibility of deciding “educational policy” as it relates to transgender students will almost certainly foster inconsistent conditions for transgender students across the country. New York State The New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the New York State Department of Education (NYSED) issued a prompt joint reminder on February 23, 2017 in which they “vehemently objected” to the Departments’ revocation of the prior guidance. New York State reminded its school districts, if not explicitly its higher education institutions, that they have an independent obligation to follow state and local laws and New York State Education Department guidance prohibiting harassment and discrimination of transgender students. The New York Attorney General said that his office will “use all the existing tools of federal, state, and local law to ensure that transgender kids are safe in their schools and are provided equal access to all programming and facilities consistent with their gender identity.” Bond’s recent Information Memo has more on the impact of the February 22 DCL on school districts. The Supreme Court’s review of G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board On October 28, 2016, the Supreme Court announced its intention to review the Fourth Circuit’s decision in G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board that was based on the federal appellate court’s deference to the Department of Education’s interpretation of federal law. It is unclear what, if any, impact the rescission of prior Department transgender guidance will have on the Supreme Court’s decision to review Gloucester County, but it is possible that a decision by the Supreme Court in that case may settle – in ways that agency guidance cannot – the question of whether Title IX protections against sex discrimination include discrimination based on gender identity and transgender status.