A federal judge has sided with two teachers who sued their school district over a policy preventing them from outing transgender and nonbinary students to their parents.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, appointed by George W. Bush, granted a preliminary injunction halting the Escondido Union School District policy. The policy follows California state guidelines that say trans students’ identities should be kept private unless the student gives consent or when necessary to protect a student’s physical or mental well-being.
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In April, Rincon Middle School teachers Elizabeth Mirabelli and Lori Ann West sued the district and the state claiming that the policy violated their First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. In their lawsuit, Mirabelli and West said that it’s their sincerely held religious belief that God made people innately and permanently male or female. The suit called trans students “gender-confused children.”
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Benitez sided with the teachers in his decision, calling a parent’s right to make decisions concerning their children “one of the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests that Americans enjoy,” the Times of San Diego reports.
“If a school student expresses words or actions during class that may be the first visible sign that the child is dealing with gender incongruity or possibly gender dysphoria, conditions that may (or may not) progress into significant, adverse, life-long social-emotional health consequences, would it be lawful for the school to require teachers to hide the event from the parents?” Benitez continued.
California law prohibits public schools from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. According to the state Department of Education’s guidelines, “Revealing a student’s gender identity or expression to others may compromise the student’s safety. Thus, preserving a student’s privacy is of the utmost importance. The right of transgender students to keep their transgender status private is grounded in California’s anti-discrimination laws as well as federal and state laws. Disclosing that a student is transgender without the student’s permission may violate California’s antidiscrimination law by increasing the student’s vulnerability to harassment and may violate the student’s right to privacy.”
Benitez disagreed, writing that students who identify as trans or nonbinary need “parental guidance and possibly mental health intervention to determine if the incongruence is organic or whether it is the result of bullying, peer pressure or a fleeting impulse.” Notably, the judge’s decision echoes the discredited “social contagion” narrative, which claims that peer pressure and exposure to trans-affirming content on social media is responsible for more adolescents and young adults spontaneously identifying as transgender or nonbinary.
The teachers’ attorney Paul Jonna told CBS8 that Benitez’s ruling “makes it very clear” that the policy against outing students is “unconstitutional.”
Michelle Breier, a spokesperson for Escondido Union School District, said the district’s leadership is reviewing Benitez’s decision.
Earlier this year, California Assemblyman Bill Essayli (R) introduced a bill that would have required all California schools to out trans kids to their parents. The bill died without a hearing, but several schools in the state have instituted such policies. Late last month, a coalition of anti-LGBTQ+ conservative groups in California announced an effort to add three anti-transgender initiatives to the state’s 2024 ballot, including one that would require schools to notify parents if their child identifies as trans or nonbinary.