NEW YORK — A federal judge has blocked the Obama administration from enforcing new guidelines that were intended to expand restroom access for transgender students across the country.
Judge Reed O’Connor of the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas said in a 38-page ruling Sunday that the government had not complied with federal law when it issued “directives which contradict the existing legislative and regulatory text.”
O’Connor, whom President George W. Bush nominated to the federal bench, said the order should apply nationwide but analysts said its impact might be limited.
O’Connor said not granting an injunction would put states “in the position of either maintaining their current policies in the face of the federal government’s view that they are violating the law, or changing them to comply with the guidelines and cede their authority over this issue.”
The judge’s order, in a case brought by officials from more than a dozen states, is a victory for social conservatives in the continuing legal battles over the restroom guidelines, which the federal government issued this year.
The fight over the rights of transgender people, and especially their right to use public bathrooms consistent with their gender identities, has emerged as an emotional cause among social conservatives.
The Obama administration’s assertion that the rights of transgender people in public schools and workplaces are protected under existing laws against sex discrimination has been condemned by social conservatives, who said the administration was illegally intruding into local affairs and promoting a policy that would jeopardize the privacy and safety of schoolchildren.
The ruling could deter the administration from bringing new legal action against school districts that do not allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice.
“We are pleased that the court ruled against the Obama administration’s latest illegal federal overreach,” Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas said in a statement on Monday. “This president is attempting to rewrite the laws enacted by the elected representatives of the people and is threatening to take away federal funding from schools to force them to conform.”
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Dena W. Iverson, said the department was disappointed with the decision and was reviewing its options.
In a statement, several civil rights organizations that had submitted a brief opposing the injunction called the ruling unfortunate and premature.
“A ruling by a single judge in one circuit cannot and does not undo the years of clear legal precedent nationwide establishing that transgender students have the right to go to school without being singled out for discrimination,” the groups — Lambda Legal; the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Texas; the National Center for Lesbian Rights; the Transgender Law Center; and GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders — said in their statement.
The ultimate impact of the Texas decision is unclear and likely to be limited, legal analysts said. More senior courts in other regions have agreed with the administration that transgender students and workers are protected by existing laws against sex discrimination, and their decisions will not be altered by the Texas ruling.
Also, the decision will not necessarily affect the outcome of other current cases.
In the most prominent one, a federal court in North Carolina is weighing almost identical issues in suits brought by civil rights groups and the Department of Justice that seek to block a state law requiring people in government buildings, including public schools, to use bathrooms that correspond to the gender listed on their birth certificates.
Adding another major note of uncertainty, the US Supreme Court has temporarily blocked a decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that required a school district in Virginia to allow a transgender boy to use the boys’ bathrooms. The Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction until it decides, probably this fall, whether to hear the case.
If the Supreme Court does take the case and reaches a majority decision one way or another, then existing rulings by district and appeals courts could be superseded. If the Supreme Court takes the Virginia case but then is divided, 4 to 4, on the issues, the Fourth Circuit’s existing decision in favor of transgender rights would take effect, although it would not be a nationally binding precedent.
The Texas lawsuit, filed by Paxton on behalf of officials in 13 states, argued that the Obama administration had overstepped its authority in a series of pronouncements in recent years, holding that discrimination against transgender people is a violation of existing laws against sex discrimination, including Title IX in federal education laws and Title VII in federal civil rights laws governing the workplace.
In May, in the latest such statement, the federal departments of Justice and Education issued a joint letter to public schools stating that transgender people should be free to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identities and that schools which refuse could lose federal funds.
The letter was quickly condemned by social conservatives, leading numerous state governments and school districts around the country to file lawsuits seeking to prevent the administration from taking action.
The Obama administration, seeking to deflect the Texas lawsuit and another brought by 10 other states, argued that the directive was not a regulation or mandate but rather an explanation of how the administration interpreted existing sex-discrimination protections. But it carried a threat that the administration might sue noncompliant school districts and seek to cut off vital federal education aid.