Federal Appeals Court Rejects School Teacher's Lawsuit Seeking To Keep Transgender Employee from Bathrooms
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MINNEAPOLIS — A federal appeals court today said a Minneapolis public school met its legal obligation by giving alternate restroom options to a teacher who did not want to use the same facilities as a male-to-female transgendered employee, in what the American Civil Liberties Union called a “watershed victory” for the rights of transgendered people.
Southwest High School teacher Carla Cruzan complained that allowing transgendered library employee Debra Davis to use the women’s bathroom violated Cruzan’s religious freedom and created a hostile workplace based on sex. As a result, the school provided Cruzan with ready access to several other bathrooms, including single-person facilities and other women’s restrooms. Unsatisfied with the school’s accommodation for her, Cruzan asked a federal court to block Davis from using the women’s restrooms at school. She lost and appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis.
“This case had two common threads that we see all across the country — someone didn’t want a transgendered person to have basic access to restrooms and then used religion as a smokescreen for blatant discrimination,” said Tamara Lange, an ACLU Lesbian & Gay Rights Project staff attorney who wrote a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the school.
“Carla Cruzan was the person who thought there was a problem here, so the school was right to find some other alternative for her — not for the transgendered employee,” Lange said. “This is a watershed victory that tells employers and businesses nationwide that they can’t deny a transgendered person basic rights based on someone’s dislike for the person.”
In today’s unanimous ruling, a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court upheld the school district’s restroom policy, saying, “The school district’s policy was not directed at Cruzan and Cruzan had convenient access to a number of restrooms other than the one Davis used. Cruzan does not assert Davis engaged in any inappropriate conduct other than merely being present in the women’s faculty restroom. Given the totality of the circumstances, we conclude a reasonable person would not have found the work environment hostile or abusive.”
The ACLU’s friend-of-the-court brief, filed earlier this year, said that Cruzan, not the school, was unreasonable when she demanded that the school allow her own personal beliefs to dictate Davis’ use of school restrooms. The ACLU, filing on behalf of groups including the Minnesota chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, also noted that students, teachers, staff and parents at Southwest High School roundly supported Davis and the school’s handling of the situation.
“The Minneapolis Public Schools have shown a willingness to learn about and support the needs and concerns of LGBT students, parents and staff. From students who plastered the walls with signs supporting Debra to the Out4Good office in the Minneapolis district itself – this community is a model for every school in the country,” said J.J. Kahle, Co-Chair of GLSEN-Minnesota. “Debra was supported so she could continue doing her good work in the library. While it’s too bad that Carla Cruzan is intolerant, her concerns were addressed by finding other restrooms she can use.”
Minnesota is one of just two states that explicitly prohibits discrimination based on gender identity – but that civil rights law is not at issue because this case is about whether Cruzan was discriminated against by the school’s accommodation of a transgendered employee. The ACLU Lesbian & Gay Rights Project is currently litigating a New York City case claiming that a landlord violated existing sex discrimination laws by evicting a social services agency because its transgendered clients used restrooms consistent with their gender identities. More on that case is online at: /node/14237.
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