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Anti-LGBTQ groups file lawsuits challenging Virginia trans protections

Both lawsuits argue that the Department of Education violated state law by failing to adequately respond to concerns raised by members of the public

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Gov. Ralph Northam signed a measure requiring school policies that protect transgender students from discrimination and harassment. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

RICHMOND, VA. – Two Virginia-based organizations that oppose LGBTQ rights filed separate lawsuits on March 29 and March 30 challenging a state policy that requires public schools to allow transgender students to have access to “restrooms, locker rooms and changing facilities” that conform to their gender identity.

The Virginia Department of Education developed guidelines to implement the policy, which took effect March 6. They were developed in compliance with a law approved by the Virginia General Assembly and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in March 2020 requiring the department to develop model school policies that protect transgender students from “discrimination and harassment” in public elementary and secondary schools.

The law is separate from the Virginia Values Act, the landmark LGBTQ nondiscrimination law passed by the General Assembly and signed by Northam in April 2020.

The Christian Action Network, a religious-right advocacy group that the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group, filed the March 29 lawsuit in Lynchburg Circuit Court in Lynchburg, Va. The lawsuit names the Department of Education and its current director, Atif Qarni, as defendants.

The Family Foundation of Virginia, which has been an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage and a supporter of so-called conversion therapy for minors and adults, filed the second lawsuit in Richmond City Court in the state capital on March 30. The Department of Education and its director are also named as defendants in that lawsuit.

Both lawsuits argue that the Department of Education violated state law by failing to adequately respond to concerns raised by members of the public at the time the guidelines were being developed during a public comment period. The lawsuits claim the policy and guidelines violate the constitutional rights of students, teachers, and parents who believe the guidelines will force female students to use the same locker rooms and bathrooms as “biological” male students.

The Family Foundation lawsuit calls on the court to stop the implementation of the trans guidelines and send them back to the Department of Education for revision.

The Education Department did not release a comment on the lawsuits at the time they were filed. But Alena Yarnosky, a spokesperson for Northam, told the Washington Post, “We don’t normally comment on litigation, but this is beyond the pale. Virginia stands firmly with trans youth and their families, and we are proud to have adopted inclusive policies that ensure the safety and dignity of all children.”

Fairfax County Public Schools Pride was among a number of LGBTQ organizations that spoke out against the lawsuits.

“The members of FCPS Pride, including parents, family members and educators, are appalled and saddened that the Family Foundation of Virginia is launching this assault on the well-being of transgender and gender-expansive children,” the group said in a statement. “We have been thrilled and reassured with the level of support that has been developing within Fairfax County Public Schools, and we have confidence in our leaders that these scare tactics will not cause them to hesitate to welcome trans and gender-expansive students in our schools,” FCPS Pride’s co-president, Robert Rigby, said in the statement.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Justice Breyer announces his retirement from high court sets up new battle

President Joe Biden told reporters that he would have “more to say later” about Justice Breyer’s retirement

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U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer (Photo Credit: SCOTUS official portrait)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, who had joined landmark decisions from the Court in support of LGBTQ rights, announced on Wednesday he’d retire, opening up a new battle over the judiciary and the potential for President Biden to add his first nominee to the high court.

First reported by NBC News, the retirement of Breyer, appointed by former Bill Clinton and confirmed in 1994, fulfills a wish among progressives for him to step down for him to step down to ensure a replacement would be named with Biden in the White House and Democrats in control of the U.S. Senate.

President Joe Biden told reporters that he would have “more to say later” about Justice Breyer’s retirement, but said that he was waiting for the justice’s own statement.

“There has been no announcement from Justice Breyer — let him make whatever statement he wants to make, and I’m happy to talk about it later,” the president remarked.

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Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania borough revokes protections for its LGBTQ+ citizens

The Republican-majority Chambersburg Borough Council made good on its promise repealing the ordinance in the 7-3 vote

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Chambersburg Borough Council voting to repeal protections for LGBTQ residents (Screenshot via ZOOM)

CHAMBERSBURG – The council of this central Pennsylvania borough (town) met on Monday, and voted to repeal an ordinance passed this last October that safeguards residents against discrimination based on their sexual orientation, ethnicity or gender identity.

The Republican-majority Chambersburg Borough Council made good on its promise repealing the ordinance in the 7-3 vote, citing a litany of reasons.

Opposition to the ordinance was led by newly installed borough council president Allen Coffman, a Republican. 

Coffman told Penn Live prior to the vote this past week that the ordinance serves no purpose and is redundant. He points out that Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission handles discrimination complaints from residents across the state.

“There are no penalties, no fines,” he said. “There’s nothing that the ordinance can make someone do. The most they can hope for is that the committee request the two parties to sit down with a counselor or mediator and talk about it. Quite frankly there is nothing that compels them to. There’s no teeth in this.”

“We are a very diverse community,” said council vice president Bill Everly, a lifelong resident. “For that reason I don’t understand why we need to have special protections for people. I think by creating special protections for people we open the door for other protections for other people. I think we need to come together and not divide us. I think this would divide us.”

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move,” said Alice Elia, a Democrat and the former Chambersburg borough council president. “This issue should not be politicized. It’s an issue of justice and having equal protection for everybody in our community. It shouldn’t be a political or a Democratic or Republican issue. This should be something we are all concerned about.”

For more than three hours, council heard the impassioned pleas from scores of borough residents, overwhelmingly speaking out in support for the ordinance. Only a few borough residents spoke in favor of repeal, Penn Live reported.

Some visibly overcome with emotion, resident after resident implored council members to keep intact the ordinance citing a litany of personal challenges faced as members of the LGBTQ community, while others spoke about the stain on the reputation of the borough if repealed.

“It feels like we are going backwards,” said Kierstin Stockum, a borough resident. “This is just protecting somebody. Why would we not want that as a community? A repeal says we not welcoming to anybody whether LGBTQ or not. It’s saying we discriminate here. Why would we want to send that message?”

Dawn Abraham, a high school teacher and cosponsor of the gay-straight alliance, noted that the LGBTQ population at Chambersburg High School had grown exponentially in recent years.

“Kids are reporting being bullied, being pushed down the stairs, barked at and called multiple expletives,” she said. “By pulling support for this you are showing our community that you don’t support the school children in the community.”

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is one of the 27 states in the nation that have no explicit statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

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Federal Government

Federal Bureau of Prisons revises manual for incarcerated Trans people

“Transgender Offender Manual,” improves policies relating to the housing and treatment of transgender people in federal custody

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Los Angeles Blade file photo/screenshot

WASHINGTON – The federal Bureau of Prisons issued this week long awaited revisions to the “Transgender Offender Manual,” improving policies relating to the housing and treatment of Transgender people in federal custody.

The new Manual rescinds the transphobic language added by the prior administration that weakened protections for incarcerated Trans people– who are already 10 times more likely than the general prison population to be targeted for violence – and undercut compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and constitutional protections. 

Among other changes, the updated guidance requires that in making housing unit and programming assignments serious consideration must be given to an incarcerated Trans or intersex person’s own views with respect to their safety. It explicitly states that deliberately and repeatedly mis-gendering an inmate is not permitted. And it includes a process for an incarcerated person to receive gender-affirming surgery.

In 2018, Lambda Legal and the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the U.S. Department of Justice and the BOP for documents and communications connected to the Trump Administration’s harmful and discriminatory changes to the Transgender Offender Manual

“The federal BOP has issued important new guidelines that will hopefully help keep Transgender people in its custody safe and provide access to life-saving healthcare including gender-affirming surgery,” said Richard Saenz, Lambda Legal Senior Attorney and Criminal Justice and Police Misconduct Strategist. “This reaffirms the constitutional rights of incarcerated Transgender people and should be an example for state prisons systems and local jails to do their duty to keep people in their custody safe.” 

“We would like to thank the BOP and our partners for working on these changes. And would like to thank Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) for his calls to reverse the previous administration’s harmful changes to the manual,” Saenz added.  

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