A group of parents and high school students in Chicago’s northwest suburbs have won the chance to continue with their lawsuit against one of the state’s largest public high school districts, asserting the district violated students’ rights by imposing a policy to allow transgender students to use the locker room and restrooms of their choice, and allegedly shaming anyone who disagreed.
On March 29, U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso refused to dismiss much of the lawsuit filed against Palatine-based Township High School District 211 by a largely anonymous group identified as Students and Parents for Privacy.
“SPP (Students and Parents for Privacy) has pleaded far more than is necessary under Tate to state a claim for sexual harassment,” Judge Alonso wrote. “Whether SPP can ultimately prevail on this claim is a question for another day, but the allegations in the complaint suffice to put District 211 on notice.”
The litigation has remained in Chicago federal court since 2016, when it was first filed by the SPP, represented by attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom, of Scottsdale, Az., and the Thomas More Society, of Chicago.
The SPP claims to represent a group of students and their parents who attend or will soon attend District 211 high schools. The district’s campuses include Palatine, Fremd, Schaumburg, Conant and Hoffman Estates high schools.
According to the complaint, District 211 in 2015, threatened with the loss of federal funds by the administration of President Barack Obama, instituted what Alonso’s decision refers to as a “compelled affirmation policy,” effectively allowing transgender students the opportunity and right to use the restroom and locker room that aligns with their gender identity, not necessarily their sex at birth. The district has asserted the policy is intended to affirm the gender identities of all of its students.
The SPP, however, asserts the policy has caused students in their group and elsewhere in the schools – and particularly female students – to suffer “embarrassment, humiliation, anxiety, fear, apprehension, stress, degradation and loss of dignity” because they are “at continual risk of encountering (and sometimes do encounter), without their consent, members of the opposite sex while” changing clothes in a locker room or using a school restroom.
The SPP further asserts that, since the policy has been instituted, students uncomfortable with the policy or who may object are treated as “intolerant and bigoted” by school officials and at times berated and bullied by other students.
The SPP asserted this violated students’ civil rights under Title IX of the federal civil rights law, as the students were effectively subjected to sexual harassment.
They also alleged the policy and the district’s treatment of those who may voice discomfort with the policy violated their rights to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and an Illinois religious freedom law/
District 211 asked the judge to dismiss the case, asserting the injuries claimed by the SPP students under Title IX weren’t “sufficiently severe, pervasive and objectively unreasonable.”
They further argued the religious freedom claims should crumble because the district never targeted anyone’s religious belief or practice.
Judge Alonso, however, disagreed on both counts.
Alonso said the Title IX claims align strongly with precedent set in other civil rights cases.
As to religious freedom, Alonso noted the policy on its face appears neutral, and not intended to harm any particular religious belief or group.
But the judge said the school district’s actions concerning the policy should allow the lawsuit to continue, both on grounds the school district violated students’ rights under the First Amendment and the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“… Plaintiffs have alleged that District 211 conveyed to students that anyone who objects to the compelled affirmation policy is a bigot or intolerant,” Judge Alonso wrote. “That sounds like the sort of ‘subtle departure’ from neutrality that might support a claim under the (First Amendment’s) Free Exercise Clause.”
The judge, however, dismissed claims asserted by the SPP plaintiffs, arguing District 211 violated students’ “fundamental right to bodily privacy” and parents’ rights to direct the education of their children.
In a statement following the ruling, ADF attorney Christiana Holcomb praised the decision saying: “We need a compassionate approach to protecting students’ privacy, and we welcome the court’s decision to allow key claims to move forward.
“The district officially authorizes opposite-sex use of school privacy facilities, and that violates Title IX. Letting boys into girls’ showers, restrooms and locker rooms is sexual harassment. Students should be confident that their school will protect their privacy and dignity. So far, this school district has failed to do so.”
District 211 is represented by attorneys with the firms of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, of Chicago, and Franczek Radelet P.C., of Chicago.
A group of intervening defendants in the action, including a number of unidentified transgender or non-binary students, and the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, are represented by attorneys with the Chicago firm of Mayer Brown LLP and the ACLU.
Judge Alonso was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in 2014 by President Barack Obama.