AUSTIN, Tex. — The Obama administration on Wednesday faced the first major court challenge to its guidance about the civil rights of transgender students in public schools, as officials from 11 states filed a lawsuit testing both the scope of federal anti-discrimination law and the government’s sweeping interpretation of it.
The officials, in states from Arizona to Georgia to Texas to Wisconsin, brought the case in Federal District Court in Wichita Falls, Tex., and said that the Obama administration had “conspired to turn workplaces and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment, flouting the democratic process, and running roughshod over common-sense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights.”
The lawsuit asked the court to block the federal government from “implementing, applying or enforcing the new rules, regulations and guidance interpretations.”
Wednesday’s litigation fed into the nation’s intensifying, and suddenly fast-moving, debate about the rights of transgender people and, in particular, whether the administration has exceeded the scope of current laws defining discrimination in the United States.
Dena W. Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said officials would review the complaint and that “the federal government has strong legal foundations to uphold the civil rights of transgender Americans.”
Although transgender rights have been litigated for years, the issue shifted into the public consciousness, in part because of the May 13 directive from the Department of Education and the Justice Department that a school “must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity.”
The government also said that a school had an obligation “to provide transgender students equal access to educational programs and activities even in circumstances in which other students, parents or community members raise objections or concerns.” The officials added that “the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students.”
The guidance, signed by two of the government’s most senior civil rights officials, did not carry the force of law, but many conservatives responded with outrage at one of its implications: that federal officials, effectively prodded by President Obama, might deny money to schools that defy the recommendations.
“He says he’s going to withhold funding if schools do not follow the policy,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas said this month. “Well in Texas, he can keep his 30 pieces of silver. We will not yield to blackmail from the president of the United States.”
On Wednesday, officials in other states used language that was only slightly less bellicose and colorful. In Louisiana, Attorney General Jeff Landry said he worried that federal officials would “wreak further havoc on our schools,” and he added that the administration’s guidance “puts the safety and security of all of our children in jeopardy.” And in Arizona, the superintendent of public instruction, Diane Douglas, said the federal government’s approach was “insulting and, quite frankly, intolerable.”
The plaintiffs in Wednesday’s lawsuit include nine states — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin — as well as the governor of Maine, Paul R. LePage; the Arizona Department of Education; and school districts in Arizona and Texas.
In their lawsuit, which was assigned to Judge Reed C. O’Connor, an appointee of President George W. Bush, the officials said that the federal government had gone “so far beyond any reasonable reading of the relevant congressional text such that the new rules, regulations, guidance and interpretations functionally exercise lawmaking power reserved only to Congress.”
That argument has become a familiar one, especially after the Justice Department and North Carolina officials traded lawsuits about a statute there that limits public restroom access for transgender people. But the Justice Department has been unbowed, and the attorney general, Loretta Lynch, has made clear her commitment to transgender rights.
“We see you,” Ms. Lynch said this month, addressing transgender people from a Justice Department lectern where she announced the case pushing back against North Carolina’s law. “We stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”
Here in Texas, a state that has been at the forefront of challenging Mr. Obama throughout his tenure, Wednesday’s litigation came as little surprise. State officials have been railing against the government’s guidance for weeks, and on Monday, a small district in North Texas advanced a policy to require students to use the restroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate.
Texas officials expected the decision of the school board in the Harrold Independent School District, near the Oklahoma border and just northwest of Wichita Falls, to draw the Justice Department’s ire, and Wednesday’s lawsuit amounted to an effort to pre-empt whatever resistance might emerge from Washington.
Gov. Greg Abbott said he welcomed the decision to sue, and he asserted that states, including Texas, were “the last line of defense against an unlawfully expansive federal government.”
Yet some legal experts and transgender rights advocates questioned the lawsuit’s prospects, and they doubted whether the officials even had the standing to bring such a case.
“I see it as a political stunt, and a really unfortunate one because it’s at the expense of transgender people, including transgender youth all across the country,” said James D. Esseks, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who focuses on gender identity and sexual orientation issues. “They’re acting as though the Obama administration’s guidance that came out a few weeks ago is like the first time that anyone has interpreted federal bans on sex discrimination to cover transgender people.”
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said the administration “may be pushing the envelope, but not a whole lot.”
Perhaps more crucially, Professor Tobias noted, the litigation in Texas could someday help push the United States Supreme Court to rule on whether existing laws forbid discrimination on the basis of gender identity, especially because cases are now moving through states that fall under different federal appeals courts. (The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit hears cases that originate in North Carolina, and the Fifth Circuit considers matters from Texas.)
“The Fifth Circuit has been pretty amenable to lots of arguments by Texas,” he said. “It could set up that kind of situation where the Supreme Court may want to take it.”