WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/CBS News/AP) — The Trump administration on Wednesday lifted federal guidelines that said transgender students should be allowed to use public school bathrooms and locker rooms matching their chosen gender identity.
The decision is a reversal of a directive issued by the departments of Education and Justice under President Barack Obama in May of last year.
It will now be up to states and school districts to interpret whether federal sex discrimination law applies to gender identity.
A letter sent to schools nationwide Wednesday by the Justice and Education departments under Trump said the earlier Obama directive caused confusion and “significant litigation” over how it should be applied. The new letter said the guidance is lifted “in order to further and more completely consider the legal issues involved.”
The letter also says that the withdrawal of the guidance documents “does not leave students without protections from discrimination, bullying, or harassment.”
“All schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment,” the letter says. It adds that the departments of Education and Justice are “committed to the application of Title IX and other federal laws to ensure such protection.”
The New York advocacy group Gay Men’s Health Crisis issued a statement decrying the decision to scrap the guidelines.
“The unacceptable repeal of vital transgender protections in public schools by the Trump administration restricts the rights of an entire group of people,” GMHC chief executive officer Kelsey Louie. “In recent years, we have made great strides in increasing social justice for the LGBT community, and this intolerant executive order diminishes that progress. We will continue to make our voices heard to ensure schools remain safe spaces for all children, regardless of the gender they identify with.”
Back in May, the Obama administration issued guidance to U.S. public schools that they were required to treat transgender students according to their gender identity, even if it is different than their birth identity. A study from The Williams Institute at UCLA Law School estimates that there are approximately 150,000 13- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. who identify as transgender.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer addressed the issue at his daily briefing on Wednesday, confirming that the Justice Department and the Department of Education were reviewing the existing guidelines and had “several areas of concern, both legal and procedural.”
Trump “is a firm believer in states’ rights, and certain issues like this are best not dealt with at the federal level,” Spicer said.
However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions believes, according to CBS News’ Paula Reid, that this is a legal issue and not a policy issue. The Obama administration had originally argued that transgender bathroom use falls under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education and education-related activities.
But Sessions believes that “sex” discrimination only refers to the sex on one’s birth certificate and does not include protection for “sexual identity.”
Although the Obama guidance was not legally binding, transgender rights advocates said it was necessary to protect students from discrimination. Opponents argued it was federal overreach.
The Obama administration directive came after the Justice Department sued the state of North Carolina over a law signed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory. The law, — known as HB2 — requires transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates. It also excludes gender identity and sexual orientation from statewide antidiscrimination protections.
Following the passage of HB2, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order banning publicly funded, non-essential travel to North Carolina.
A federal court had already put the Obama administration’s guidance on hold, so this is not a huge upheaval in day-to-day operations. However, it signals the first major shift in the Department of Justice’s approach to civil rights under a Trump presidency.
The reversal comes just weeks before the Supreme Court is expected to hear a case on transgender students’ bathroom rights.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)