Challenge to Florida's controversial transgender athlete ban put on hold

A challenge to a controversial state law that bans transgender females from participating on girls’ and women’s sports teams has been put on hold while another Florida case plays out in a federal appeals court.

U.S. District Judge Roy Altman last week issued a stay in the challenge filed on behalf of a Broward County transgender girl who is in middle school. The lawsuit contends that the ban, passed by lawmakers last year, is unconstitutional and violates a federal law known as Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs.

Altman, a judge in South Florida, said in his order that the lawsuit will remain on hold until after a decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in a case filed by a transgender male student who was prevented from using boys’ bathrooms at a St. Johns County high school.

The full Atlanta-based appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments Feb. 22 in that case, which has drawn national attention and is slated to include arguments by the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the student, Drew Adams.

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In his stay of the lawsuit about transgender athletes, Altman wrote that the parties had submitted briefs that extensively discussed the constitutional equal-protection and Title IX issues in the Adams case.

"We share the parties' (apparent) conclusion that the Eleventh Circuit's en banc (full court) decision in Adams may materially affect the result in our case," Altman wrote in the order.

The law about transgender female athletes was one of the most controversial issues of the 2021 legislative session, with the state saying in an August court document that it was aimed at helping ensure athletic opportunities for females who want to play interscholastic or college sports.

"Men’s and women’s athletic teams, separated by sex, are more than a long-standing social custom; they protect and foster the equal opportunity of girls and women to participate in athletics," the document said. "Courts have long accepted that boys and men are physiologically different from girls and women, and that male athletes, if permitted to compete with, would displace and exclude female athletes."

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But the lawsuit, filed in June on behalf of a student identified by the initials D.N., said the law (SB 1028) is "part of a wave of anti-transgender bills" across the country and would "stigmatize this teenager and separate her from her peers and teammates." The lawsuit said D.N. began hormone blockers at age 11 to stop testosterone and has started receiving estrogen and that she plays soccer and volleyball.

"SB 1028, ironically titled the ‘Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,’ has nothing to do with fairness or equality for girls or women in sports," the lawsuit said. "By excluding transgender girls and women from girls’ sports teams and forcing them, if they want to play sports at all, to join a team that matches neither their gender identity nor their current physical status, the bill discriminates on the basis of sex and transgender status in violation of the United States Constitution and Title IX."

The Adams case, which involves a St. Johns County schools’ policy about bathroom use, has drawn briefs on each side from 40 states and the District of Columbia, along with the U.S. Justice Department’s participation.

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Adams and his mother filed the lawsuit in 2017 after St. Johns County’s Nease High School required him to use a gender-neutral, single-stall bathroom or girls’ bathrooms. A U.S. district judge sided with Adams in the dispute, leading to the St. Johns County School Board taking the case to the appeals court.

A panel of the court ruled in favor of Adams in July, but the full court subsequently vacated the ruling and said it would hear the case.