(CBS NEWS/CBSDFW.COM) – President Donald Trump’s administration on Wednesday reversed Obama-era policies requiring that public schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. It will now be up to states and school districts to interpret whether federal sex discrimination law applies to gender identity.
A letter sent to schools nationwide Wednesday by the Justice and Education departments says the earlier Obama directive caused confusion and “significant litigation” over how it should be applied. The new letter says the guidance is lifted “in order to further and more completely consider the legal issues involved.”
The letter also says that the withdrawal of the guidance documents “does not leave students without protections from discrimination, bullying, or harassment.”
“All schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment,” the letter says. It adds that the departments of Education and Justice are “committed to the application of Title IX and other federal laws to ensure such protection.”
Back in May, the Obama administration issued guidance to U.S. public schools that they were required to treat transgender students according to their gender identity, even if that’s different than their birth identity. A study from The Williams Institute at UCLA Law School estimates that there are approximately 150,000 13- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. who identify as transgender.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer addressed the issue at his daily briefing on Wednesday, confirming that the Justice Department and the Department of Education were reviewing the existing guidelines and had “several areas of concern, both legal and procedural.”
Mr. Trump “is a firm believer in states rights, and certain issues like this are best not dealt with at the federal level,” Spicer said.
However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions believes, according to CBS News’ Paula Reid, that this is a legal issue and not a policy issue. The Obama administration had originally argued that transgender bathroom use falls under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education and education-related activities. However, Sessions believes that “sex” discrimination only refers to the sex on one’s birth certificate and does not include protection for “sexual identity.”
Spicer made that same argument during Wednesday’s briefing.
“There was no discussion of [the transgender issue] back then and to assume certain elements of the law were thought of back then with respect to this would be preposterous,” he said.
The Obama administration’s guidance came shortly after the Justice Department sued North Carolina over a new state law that says transgender people must use public bathrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate, a law the administration said violated the Civil Rights Act.
A federal court had already put the Obama administration’s guidance on hold, so this is not a huge upheaval in day-to-day operations. However, it signals the first major shift in the Department of Justice’s approach to civil rights under a Trump presidency.
The reversal comes just weeks before the Supreme Court is expected to hear a case on transgender students’ bathroom rights.
Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick issued this statement after the Trump administration’s announcement:
“We agree with President Trump that this is a state issue, which is why Senator Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and I have crafted a state policy — the Texas Privacy Act (Senate Bill 6) which ensures that public schools continue to designate separate restrooms, locker rooms and showers for boys and girls as well as allowing schools to continue to determine how they will accommodate students with individual needs, as they have always done.
“SB6 also protects private businesses from being forced by a local government to adopt any kind of restroom, locker room or shower policy and requires government buildings to continue to designate separate restrooms, locker rooms and showers for men and women.
“SB 6 does not discriminate against anyone. It is a common sense, privacy and public safety policy for everyone.
“SB 6 continues to have strong support from the people of Texas in both political parties and every racial and ethnic group.”
Senator Lois W. Kolkhorst released this statement:
“I am grateful for the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to rescind the mandates issued by the Obama Administration that rewrote a great deal of Title IX and redefined gender which would have allowed men in women’s restrooms, showers, locker rooms and dressing rooms in our public schools, colleges and universities. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledged that ‘there must be due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing educational policy.’ Therefore, we will continue to work diligently in crafting the Texas Privacy Act to ensure that our state provides a non-discriminatory solution for all Texas students and the general public in these most intimate settings. The people of Texas must define for ourselves what boundaries are expected in our public facilities.”