WASHINGTON ― The Supreme Court on Wednesday put on hold a judge’s order that would have allowed a transgender student to use the boys’ restroom at his local high school in Virginia.
Gavin Grimm, the 17-year-old at the center of the case, won a significant appeals ruling in April that deferred to the federal government’s interpretation of Title IX, a federal law that bars school districts from discriminating on the basis of sex but doesn’t explicitly provide gender identity protections.
As a result of that decision, a federal judge in June ordered the Gloucester County School board to allow Grimm, who is now a senior in high school, to use the boys’ bathroom in the coming school year. The teen sued after the district instituted a policy mandating students use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificates.
But after an unsuccessful bid to block the order, the school district asked the Supreme Court to intervene in an emergency fashion while it sought a more formal appeal ― a process that could take months.
Even though the court is currently on recess for the summer, five justices agreed to the request — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer ― but didn’t provide a reasoning for their move.
Of these, Breyer’s vote may come as a surprise to advocates, as the justice often sides with the court’s liberal wing. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan would’ve left the order in favor of Grimm in place.
As if to explain his vote, Breyer wrote a brief concurrence to say that he joined his more conservative colleagues “to preserve the status quo” and because the court is currently not in session.
“I vote to grant the application as a courtesy,” Breyer wrote.
Although the court hasn’t formally added this case to its docket, this is the first time the Supreme Court enters the controversy of bathroom access in public spaces for transgender people.
Grimm’s case could be a linchpin on this front, even as other states and localities face off with the federal government over whether existing federal civil rights statutes shield trans individuals from discrimination in education and employment settings.
Among the issues that are central to the Grimm case and similar disputes in North Carolina and elsewhere is whether the Obama administration acted lawfully in its interpretation of Title IX, which prohibits certain kinds of discrimination against students by state and local schools receiving federal funding.
Joshua Block, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represents Grimm, expressed disappointment at the Supreme Court’s order but was hopeful he’d prevail in the end.
Grimm “will have to begin another school year isolated from his peers and stigmatized by the Gloucester County school board just because he’s a boy who is transgender,” Block said in a statement.
This story has been updated to include comment from Block.