A lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District by a transgender former student will move forward after an appellate court ruled that the Minnesota Human Rights Act “prohibits segregating and separating transgender students with respect to locker-room use.”

The plaintiff, who attended Coon Rapids High School from 2015 to 2017, sued last year claiming the district violated state law and his constitutional right to equal protection by requiring him to use an “enhanced privacy” locker room.

In a decision filed Sept. 28 the Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s refusal to dismiss the case. But the Appeals Court reversed the lower court’s decision regarding the applicable legal standard for determining whether the school district violated the student’s rights. Instead of “strict scrutiny,” the Court of Appeals said a lower standard called “intermediate scrutiny” applies.

The case will return to the lower court for further proceedings.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which joined the case on behalf of the plaintiff, said the “powerful opinion” means Minnesota schools “must allow students to use locker rooms that align with their gender identity under the state’s civil rights law.”

“This decision means that schools are now safer and more welcoming for transgender and gender nonconforming students across Minnesota,” said Minnesota Department of Human Rights Deputy Commissioner Irina Vaynerman in a statement. “Our state was the first in the nation to prohibit gender identity discrimination. Today’s decision honors that legacy and continues to build a more equitable and inclusive Minnesota.”

The Anoka-Hennepin School District said it is weighing its options.

“The district is reviewing and analyzing the decision of the Court of Appeals, and will carefully consider its next steps,” a district statement said. “The district’s top priority is maintaining a learning environment that is safe, secure, and free from discrimination, and its decision will be guided by those values.”

Several arguments in the case centered on the Minnesota Supreme Court case Goins vs. West Group, in which a transgender woman sued her employer for requiring her to use a restroom based on biological sex. The Supreme Court found that doing so does not violate the Minnesota Human Rights Act provision governing employment.

The appeals court ruled that the Goins case did not apply because the Minnesota Human Rights Act treats discrimination in education and employment under separate provisions. The law defines discriminatory practice in education as discrimination “in any manner in the full utilization of or benefit from any educational institution,” according to the appeals court decision. In contrast, the statute restrains unfair employment practice in respect to hiring, tenure, compensation, terms, upgrading, conditions, facilities or privileges of employment.

“Under a plain reading, the MHRA’s education provision protects the rights of any student to use locker rooms without discrimination,” the decision states.

In his dissent, Judge Matthew E. Johnson argued that the Goins case did apply because the Legislature has not passed any bills amending the Human Rights Act to further clarify the issue involving bathrooms after the Goins case.

In regard to the plaintiff’s claim of equal protection violations, the appeals court determined the claim could proceed because he was treated differently than similarly situated peers.

“N.H. (the plaintiff) identifies as male, has socially transitioned to male, and lives as male,” the decision states. “Others also identify him as male and treat him as male. Based on this record, we conclude that N.H. is similarly situated to his peers because he, like his peers, sought to use a locker room that corresponded with his gender identity.”

The opinion goes on to say that “a transgender high-school student who is denied use of a locker room that is available to students of the gender with which the student identifies and to which the student has socially transitioned states a claim upon which relief can be granted of an equal-protection violation under article I, section 2 of the Minnesota Constitution.”

In his dissent, Johnson disputed the majority’s finding that the only relevant factor was the boy’s gender identity. He pointed out that based on the complaint, the plaintiff likely had female anatomy during the time period in question, so he “was like cisgender boys in terms of gender identity, but he was unlike cisgender boys in terms of anatomy.”

“The anatomical differences between transgender boys and cisgender boys are relevant for the obvious reason that they are visible when boys shower or change clothes in shared spaces,” Johnson wrote.

Facts of the case

The plaintiff, a transgender former student, filed the lawsuit against Anoka-Hennepin after the school district required him to use an “enhanced privacy” locker room. The student attended Coon Rapids High School 2015-2017. During his freshman year he joined the swim team. Near the end of the season, the school district told the student he would no longer be allowed to use the boys’ locker room, but later retracted that decision.

Between his freshman and sophomore years, the high school remodeled the locker room to create the enhanced privacy changing area. The new area was adjacent to the locker room, with a private toilet stall and two private changing and showering facilities but had a separate entrance, according to court documents.

In 2017 the district informed the student he would be required to use the enhanced privacy room for his physical education classes. The student continued to use the boys’ locker room, for which he was threatened with disciplinary action. In the spring of 2017 the boy transferred outside the district.

In 2019 the civil lawsuit was filed against the school district, and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights was allowed to intervene on the student’s behalf.

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