SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is joining a coalition of states suing members of the Obama administration for clarification on a directive regarding transgender bathroom policies in schools.
The complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief was filed Wednesday in northern Texas' U.S. District Court, joining Utah with Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Maine, Louisiana, Arizona and Georgia.
Together, the 11 states say they are responding after leaders in President Barack Obama's administration ignored requests for information about various unanswered issues created by the directive.
The sweeping directive was handed down May 13, saying public schools must allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. Additionally, the letter mandated that school districts integrate transgender students into their preferred locker rooms, athletic teams and other facilities.
The lawsuit accuses officials behind the directive of "conspir(ing) to turn workplaces and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment, flouting the democratic process, and running roughshod over common sense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights."
Marina Gomberg, board chairwoman for Equality Utah, said the lawsuit attacks "the basic dignity of our trans students."
"It is disappointing to see that our home state is engaging in a fight that is antithetical to what we perceive to be Utah values, caring about children," Gomberg said.
She believes deeper investigation into the issue will ultimately help Utahns better understand and appreciate transgender youth. However, she is convinced that policies about transgender bathroom access should be addressed on a national level rather than by individual states.
"I appreciate that what (plaintiffs in the lawsuit) are looking for is clarity," Gomberg said. "I am concerned that, if the question were to be addressed locally, that it wouldn't be to the better health of our community."
Calling the 32-page lawsuit a response to overreach by the federal government rather than a question about bathrooms, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said Wednesday that a letter sent by the president earlier this month attempts to apply "one size fits all" policies to a complex issue without considering individual needs.
"Multiple states in good faith sought clarification from the (Department of Justice) and (Department of Education), but the silence from the federal government has resulted in an environment of confusion for educators and administrators," Reyes said in the prepared statement. "The lawsuit will identify whether states and local school boards remain free to find solutions on a case-by-case basis, suited to the needs of individual families."
Gomberg, however, disagreed with Reyes, saying the question really is about which bathrooms transgender students should use.
"It is about bathrooms; it's about access," she said. "The process of having that questioned, about where they can go, is really to experience."
Reyes went on to call the directive flawed and legally improper, forcing a new interpretation of law.
"When a presidential administration wishes to change the law, it must do so appropriately. This administration could have worked with Congress. It could have challenged the constitutionality of a state or local board policy. Or it could have taken proper steps under the Administrative Procedures Act to provide notice and solicit comment from the public, including states, school boards and families. Process has a purpose," Reyes said.
In response to the lawsuit, Emilie Wheeler, spokeswoman for the Utah State School Board, said Wednesday the board is not named in the lawsuit and is not currently supporting it, but is "watching closely."
A decision of whether to support the lawsuit would require a vote by the full school board, Wheeler said, but the board is not scheduled to meet for several weeks. A vote could be taken in an emergency meeting, but one hasn't been scheduled at this point.
The directive was sent to every public school district and was accompanied by 25 pages outlining examples of "policies and emerging practices." The directive is not legally binding, but schools that do not comply may face lawsuits and risk losing federal funding.
Federal funds currently make up 11 percent — or $482.4 million — of the state's nearly $4.3 billion education budget.
The directive spurred a flurry of opposition in Utah by state and local leaders as well as concerned parents earlier this month. The Utah Legislature has since voted to study local impacts of the directive.
Gov. Gary Herbert on Wednesday reiterated his earlier criticism that the bathroom directive amounted to "federal overreach" and voiced his support for the states that have also joined the lawsuit.
"Every Utah student should feel safe and be treated with dignity and respect," Herbert said in a prepared statement. "Local schools can and should work directly with parents and students to find appropriate, individualized solutions. It is unfortunate that the president has chosen to politicize our schools with such an extreme example of federal overreach."
GOP gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Johnson backed Herbert and the lawsuit.
"This is the right decision and the same action I would pursue as governor. I appreciate the leadership of these 11 Republican governors and for (Texas) Gov. (Greg) Abbott leading the charge," Johnson said.
Utah Democratic Party Executive Director Lauren Littlefield called the lawsuit a waste of both time and taxpayer money Wednesday.
"While Utahns are literally dying because our GOP leaders have refused to pass common sense Medicaid expansion, those same leaders have seen fit to use taxpayer money to pander to the far right wing of their party," Littlefield said.
"It is immoral and reprehensible to discriminate against our LGBT students in this way, and even worse, to do it at taxpayer expense," she said. "Rather than creating problems where there aren't any, Utah GOP leaders should re-evaluate their priorities and focus on the issues that will truly make a difference for Utah families."
Contributing: Brianna Bodily
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