Transgender Students, Bathrooms and the Missouri Human Rights Act

A transgender student has filed an appeal in a lawsuit alleging denial of access to the school restrooms and locker rooms for the gender with which they identify.  Sound like North Carolina?  Try Blue Springs, Missouri.

A minor student of the Blue Springs R-IV School District, identified in Court records as “R.M.A.,” was born female but transitioned to living as a male in the fourth grade; and later legally changed the gender listed on his birth certificate.  Despite such changes, the school district would not allow R.M.A. to use the restrooms and locker rooms for male students, citing safety concerns of having a biologically-female student able to freely access the boys’ restroom and locker room facilities.

In October 2015, R.M.A. filed a lawsuit in Missouri state court alleging that the district denied him public accommodations on the basis of his sex in violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA).  In June 2016, the state court dismissed R.M.A.’s petition on the grounds that the MHRA does not extend protection to gender identity/transgender status claims.  R.M.A. has now appealed that decision to the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District of Missouri.

Readers of the blog will be familiar with the ongoing controversy regarding whether transgender status is covered by Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination “because of sex.”  R.M.A.’s lawsuit is brought under the Missouri Human Rights Act, which similarly prohibits discrimination “on the grounds of … sex”.  The ongoing debate centers on whether the term “sex” includes discrimination because of transgender status.  R.M.A. and supporters of his claim argue that the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education and Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, as well as several federal courts, have taken the position that sex discrimination includes discrimination based on transgender status because it involves “gender stereotyping.”  The district and opponents of R.M.A.’s position argue that “sex” was never intended to include “transgender status” and point to multiple failed attempts in the General Assembly to expand the MHRA to include transgender status protection.

In 2015, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District refused to recognize a claim under the MHRA alleging “sexual orientation” discrimination.  Although this may suggest that the Court of Appeals also will interpret the term “sex” narrowly to exclude transgender status, R.M.A.’s attorneys have argued that sexual orientation and transgender status are two separate issues and that the 2015 decision is not relevant to whether R.M.A.’s transgender claim is cognizable under the MHRA.

Regardless of the outcome, the issue likely will not be resolved by the Missouri Courts of Appeals, but eventually by the Missouri Supreme Court.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others.  As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.