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Missouri Court of Appeals weighing whether state’s Human Rights Acts covers gender identity

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Court of Appeals will hear a case brought by a 17-year-old transgender boy from the Kansas City area.

Updated May 31 with oral arguments — A case that could expand legal protections for the state’s LGBTQ community is in the hands of a three-judge panel of Missouri’s Court of Appeals.

Judges Anthony Gabbert, Victor Howard and Cynthia Martin heard arguments Wednesday in the case of a 17-year-old transgender boy from the Kansas City area who wants to be allowed to use the boy’s restroom and lockers rooms at his school. His attorneys argue that the decision by the Blue Springs R-IV district to deny the request violates Missouri’s Human Rights Act.

The arguments took place just a day after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a transgender boy in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who challenged a school district’s policy similar to the one in place in Blue Springs. The decision upheld a lower court ruling that found the policy in place violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.s. Constitution’s 14th Amendment as well as Title IX of the federal Educational Amendments Act of 1972.

One of the judges specifically mentioned the ruling on the Wisconsin district during oral arguments, according to Steven Coronado, who represented Blue Springs. He said he thought the panel “did a masterful job of trying to boil down the arguments to the main points.

“They all seemed to be asking pretty pointed questions of both sides,” Coronado said.

Alex Edelman, the boy’s attorney, told the judges that gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, which the Missouri Human Rights Act prohibits.

“So this isn’t a new form of discrimination that has to be separately enumerated,” he said after the arguments concluded.

The court is expected to hand down its decision in the next 6-8 weeks.

Original story from May 29: 

A case that could expand legal protections for Missouri’s LGBTQ community goes in front of the Missouri Court of Appeals on Wednesday. At the heart of it is a 17-year-old transgender boy who wants to be able to use the boys’ restroom and locker rooms at his high school in the Blue Springs R-IV school district, located outside Kansas City.

His attorneys argue the district’s refusal to grant him that right violates the state’s Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex. They’re seeking to overturn a 2016 decision agreeing with the school district that the boy could not sue for discrimination because the act doesn’t cover gender identity.

The case comes on the heels of the Missouri legislature sending Gov. Eric Greitens a bill that makes it harder for workers to prove they were discriminated against under the Missouri Human Rights Act. He has not indicated whether he'll sign it.

The details of the case

The boy, who is identified in court documents as R.M.A., began living as a boy at age 9. He legally changed his name in 2010 and was later issued a new birth certificate listing his sex as male.

Throughout elementary, middle and high school, R.M.A used single-stall restrooms, including when changing for athletics and gym. But, according to court documents, both the boy and his mother “expressed an interest in R.M.A” using boys’ locker rooms and restrooms in eighth grade.

The district refused and his mother sued, saying the decision discriminated against her son on the basis of sex.

The argument goes like this: Court rulings have said that sex discrimination also includes discrimination based on a gender-related trait, such as pregnancy. Gender identity, R.M.A.’s attorneys argue in court briefs, is a gender-related trait.

Despite that fact that R.M.A. is a boy “by all legal definitions,” his attorneys said in a legal brief, the school “treated him differently than other students in their provision of access to facilities based his gender-related traits.”

School officials don’t have the same interpretation of the Missouri Human Rights Act. Because gender identity isn’t specifically mentioned, attorneys for the school board and district argue, it’s not protected under the Missouri Human Rights Act, and judges should not read something into the law that isn’t there. Sex, they write in their legal brief, is defined as distinguishing between male and female on the basis of reproductive organs, and that isn’t the reason R.M.A was treated differently.

Attorneys for the school also argued that the district and the board are not “people” under the definitions in the act, and therefore can’t be sued.

A judge in 2016 agreed with the school’s legal arguments and threw the case out — that is the decision being appealed.

Possible implications

A favorable ruling for the boy would make it illegal to discriminate against someone when it comes to housing, employment and public accommodations because of their gender identity, according to Steph Perkins, the executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group PROMO.

“For example, right now, it’s still legal under Missouri law to fire someone simply because they’re transgender, or they’re gay,” Perkins said.

Perkins said he would not be surprised if lawmakers tried to reverse a favorable court ruling.

“We regularly see the legislature try to make moves to make it so that transgender students aren’t allowed to use the appropriate bathrooms, to make it so that Missouri law stays the way it is right now and gay and transgender people are allowed to be fired in Missouri,” he said.

A group of transgender students protest against Senate Bill 98 on Wed., March 15, 2017, in front of a men's room on the third floor of the Missouri Capitol.
Credit File photo | Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
A group of transgender students protests against a so-called "bathroom bill" at the state Capitol on March 15.

For the last two years, state Senator Ed Emery, R-Lamar, has introduced Missouri’s version of a “bathroom bill,” which requires that all students use bathrooms that correspond to their biological sex. Transgender students would be accommodated through single-stall facilities.

Emery did not return a request for comment for this report, but has said his bill, which has never come up for a vote, protects the privacy and safety of all students, while respecting the existence of transgender students.

Bev Ehlen, the state director of Concerned Women for America of Missouri, said a ruling in favor of R.M.A. would be disappointing to the group, which seeks to push Christian principles through public policy.

“Behavior isn’t a protected class,” Ehlen said.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.