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HRC sues Tennessee over bathroom bill as school year starts

“The state’s political leaders are making Tennessee a dangerous place for our daughter, & other children like her.”

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Estes Kefauver Federal Building & Courthouse, Nashville Tennessee (Photo Credit: U.S. Courts)

NASHVILLE – The Human Rights Campaign, (HRC) has filed suit in the U. S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee challenging the Tennessee law that denies transgender students, faculty, and staff access to the bathroom, locker rooms and other sex-segregated facilities consistent with their gender identity. 

The suit filed Tuesday by the Washington D.C. based LGBTQ advocacy group joined by the law firms of Linklaters and Branstetter, Stranch, & Jennings PLLC,  is on behalf of two Trans students currently enrolled in Tennessee schools and alleges that the law violates Title IX, the 1972 federal law that protects against sex discrimination in education.

HRC in a press release noted that its federal suit was brought on behalf of 14-year-old Alex* and his parents, Amy A. and Jeff S., as well as 6-year-old Ariel* and her parents, Julie and Ross B.

“Alex is excited to start high school this fall where he will be an honor student. His family relocated to Tennessee in 2018 to build their ‘forever home’ in an incredibly supportive and tight-knit neighborhood and Alex takes pride in being involved in his community and has created strong friendships among his peers at school.”

We didn’t know we had a trans child when we relocated to Tennessee—if Alex had come out to us before the move, we wouldn’t have come here. It makes me so angry that our elected officials have chosen to target trans kids. If lawmakers were to take the time to get to know my son, they would see that he is an amazing, smart, caring, creative person who has so much to offer. Alex just wants to be a regular kid. He should be able to look forward to starting high school without the added layer of anxiety about something as basic as using the bathroom

Amy and Jeff

He came out as transgender before the 7th grade, however, in 7th grade he was not allowed to use the boys’ restroom. Instead, Alex was forced to either use the school nurse’s private bathroom or the restroom that corresponded to his gender assigned at birth—not due to statewide legislation, but instead due to the school policy. Both options were alienating and isolating for Alex who instead stopped drinking liquids at school to avoid having to use the facilities.

Due to COVID-19 pandemic-related issues, Alex transferred to a private school for 8th grade that affirmed his gender identity, including permitting access to the boys’ restroom—Alex enjoyed a great year, without incident. He is also looking forward to starting high school at the public school near his home, but due to Tennessee’s anti-Trans bathroom law, He will again be forced into using restrooms that are stigmatizing or forgo using the bathroom altogether.

To protect Alex, Amy and Jeff are considering moving from their beloved community and leaving their ‘forever home’ behind out of fear for Alex’s safety at school and emotional wellbeing, the statement concludes.

In the case of the second plaintiff, HRC noted: Similar to Alex, Ariel’s family built their ‘forever home’ from the ground up in a neighborhood they fell in love with and that fills Julie, Ross, and Ariel with happiness and friendship.

Ariel began expressing her gender identity at 2 years old and when she was nearing 4 years old, Julie read the children’s book “I Am Jazz,” to Ariel that tells the story of a transgender girl. When the main character explains that she “has a boy body with a girl brain.” Ariel immediately lit up with excitement and eagerly told her mother, “that’s me, momma, I have a boy body with a girl brain.”

Since Ariel began her social transition at 4 years old, her classmates, their parents, teachers and school administrators have only known Ariel as her authentic self. When she was enrolled in kindergarten, her school was receptive and understanding of her gender identity and has largely protected Ariel from stigmatizing experiences.

In anticipation of Ariel starting 1st grade at a different school this fall, Julie reached out to the principal to discuss accommodations for her daughter.

Since Tennessee’s bathroom law is enacted, Ariel will have to use the boy’s restroom or the private nurse’s bathroom despite only ever using the girl’s restroom. Due to her young age, Ariel does not understand the law’s ramifications or why she is being told to use the boy’s bathroom.

The state’s political leaders are making Tennessee a dangerous place for our daughter, and other children like her. We are extremely worried about her future here, and the bills that are being passed have put us in panic mode. They are attacking children that cannot defend themselves for what appears to be political gain over a non-existent problem. We wish our leaders would take the time to speak with transgender youth and adults—instead, their fear of the unknown is unnecessarily leading their actions and causing irreparable harm to these children

Julie and Ross

Julie and Ross are also considering moving out of Tennessee due to these anti-transgender laws out of fear for their growing daughter, the statement concluded.

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972; Title IX expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. In June the U.S. Education Department announced it would expand its interpretation of federal sex protections to include transgender and gay students. The new policy directive means that discrimination based on a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity will be treated as a violation of Title IX.

The lawsuit also alleges that the law violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to deny certiorari in Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board left in place a federal circuit court decision recognizing the rights of transgender students under the Equal Protection Clause and Title IX.

In July a federal judge blocked a new law in Tennessee that required businesses and other entities that allow transgender people to use the public restroom that matches their gender to post a government-prescribed warning sign.

“This law is bad for businesses in Tennessee, and most importantly, harmful to transgender people,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director. “We are glad the court saw that this law is likely unconstitutional and hope that the state gives up the wasteful effort to defend discrimination and a violation of the First Amendment.”

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Tennessee

Anti-LGBTQ+ foster agency discriminates against married Jewish couple

Holston said it “only provide[s] adoption services to prospective adoptive families that share our [Christian] belief system” 

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Courtesy of Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram

GREENVILLE, Tn. – The Holston Home, which is affiliated with the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church and operates as an orphanage, foster agency and adoption agency, was sued in state court Wednesday after a married cis-gender Knox County, Tennessee, couple were denied foster-parent training and a home-study certification by the state-funded agency.

The Rutan-Rams in early 2021 were excited to begin the process of fostering to adopt a male child from Florida. They were told they needed to complete Tennessee-mandated foster-parent training and a home-study certification.

The Rutan-Rams contacted the only agency in their area that was willing to provide those services for out-of-state placements – Holston United Methodist Home for Children, a state-funded agency that provides foster care placement, training, and other services on behalf of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

In court documents filed in the state of Tennessee’s 20th Judicial District Court, Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram allege that Holston initially told the couple that it would provide them with the services they needed.

But the day that the Rutan-Rams were scheduled to start Holston’s training class, Holston told the couple it wouldn’t serve them because they are Jewish. Holston said it “only provide[s] adoption services to prospective adoptive families that share our [Christian] belief system.” 

Because there was no other agency in the Knox County area that would provide the foster-parent training and certification for the adoption of an out-of-state child, the Rutan-Rams were unable to adopt the boy from Florida.

“I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” said Liz Rutan-Ram. “It was the first time I felt discriminated against because I am Jewish. It was very shocking. And it was very hurtful that the agency seemed to think that a child would be better off in state custody than with a loving family like us.” 

“It’s infuriating to learn our tax dollars are funding discrimination against us,” said Gabe Rutan-Ram. “If an agency is getting tax money to provide a service, then everyone should be served – it shouldn’t matter whether you’re Jewish, Catholic or an atheist. We’re all citizens of Tennessee, regardless of our religion.”

The religious discrimination experienced by the Rutan-Rams occurred almost exactly a year after Gov. Bill Lee signed into law House Bill 836, which authorizes taxpayer-funded foster-care agencies in Tennessee to deny services to prospective families who are the “wrong” religion or don’t follow an agency’s religious tenets.

State legislators were warned the law clearly violates religious freedom as outlined in both the state and U.S. Constitutions, but legislators passed the law despite public outcry.

“The Tennessee Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, promises religious freedom and equality for everyone. Tennessee is reneging on that promise by allowing a taxpayer-funded agency to discriminate against Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram because they are Jews,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United. “Laws like House Bill 836 must not stand when they allow religion to be used to harm vulnerable kids and people like Liz and Gabe who want to provide those children with safe and loving homes.”

Joining the Rutan-Rams as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are six Tennessee residents, four of them faith leaders, who object to their tax dollars being used to fund any child-placing agency that engages in religious discrimination. The plaintiffs include:

  • The Rev Jeannie Alexander, an interfaith pastor from Davidson County
  • The Rev. Elaine Blanchard, a Disciples of Christ minister from Shelby County
  • The Rev. Alaina Cobb, a Christian minister from Davidson County
  • The Rev. Denise Gyauch, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Davidson County
  • Dr. Larry Blanz of Davidson County, a retired psychologist with more than forty years of experience that includes working with foster parents and children
  • Mirabelle Stoedter, a Davidson County resident who serves as treasurer of the Tennessee chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The lawsuit, Rutan-Ram v. Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, also names department Commissioner Jennifer Nichols as a defendant. The suit explains that the department and Nichols are violating the religious-freedom and equal-protection provisions in Articles I and XI of the Tennessee Constitution by funding religious discrimination in foster-care services. 

In December of this past year, the Holston Home filed a federal lawsuit alleging that its religious beliefs were violated by federal rules that it must place children with same-sex couples.

The Holston suit also claims; “The messages Holston Home recites in its child placing activities are consistent with Holston Home’s religious beliefs about cohabitation, and about
marriage being between a biological male and a biological female.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center listed anti-LGBTQ extremist hate group Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale, Arizona far-right legal group is representing Holston in both cases.

The Holston president and CEO Bradley Williams could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Instead, a receptionist at Home for Children told Knox News and other media outlets to email the organization’s law firm, Alliance Defending Freedom which also did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

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Lakeland students withdraw GSA request after pushback

Last month, some parents and other community members railed against creating a GSA at a Lakeland School Board meeting on December 6, 2021

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Lakeland Preparatory School (Blade file photo)

LAKELAND, Tn. – Students at Lakeland Preparatory School in Tennessee have withdrawn their request to form a “Gay Straight Alliance” (GSA) after heated school board debates last month where some parents attacked the creation of a pro-LGBTQ+ club at the school. 

Local outlet Lakeland Currents reported that the school, which resides in a suburb of Memphis, sent an email Monday announcing the news. 

“Student leaders have withdrawn their request for a GSA club,” the email read. “Instead, they have requested approval for a new club called Allies of Diversity.”

According to the email, the club will “explore equity, diversity, and multiculturalism as it relates to students’ lives within the Lakeland community. Allies of Diversity welcomes all people, cultures, genders, orientations, beliefs, and religions.”

The GSA was supposed to begin Monday as Lakeland students returned from winter break. 

Last month, some parents and other community members railed against creating a GSA at a Lakeland School Board meeting on December 6, 2021. 

Former Lakeland Mayor Wyatt Bunker spoke at the meeting, saying, “Is this the school system that we fought for? [A school system] that now clearly doesn’t align with our values.” 

Bunker added: “At this point, we have to take a stand.”

Chad and Heather Reynolds, who have an 8-year-old and 13-year-old in the school system, told the board that they want their sons to be educated, not “indoctrinated.” 

The couple was particularly worried about alleged Facebook posts by the GSA’s main sponsor, Lakeland drama teacher Mandy Christopher. 

“It’s all over her social media accounts,” Chad Reynolds said. “She has an agenda to infiltrate our school system with her beliefs.”

However, a Los Angeles Blade review of Christopher’s Facebook page found no content related to the GSA. 

At a later school board meeting, Christopher was accused of being a “predator” for a TikTok that supposedly showed the teacher with a student in a parked car, according to the Lakeland Currents. The video has since been deleted, and it is unclear what exactly happened in the video. 

“Ms. Christopher is not a predator, she’s just a friend,” Robbie Stephens, the grandmother of the student in the video who said her granddaughter is a part of the LGBTQ+ community. 

At the time, the board explained to attendees that they could not intervene, fearing potential litigation if they did. 

The club’s goal was to provide a safe and supportive environment for LGBTQ+ students. 

According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), GSA’s presence in schools creates a safer environment for LGBTQ+ students, with students less likely to hear homophobic remarks and more likely to feel safe in schools with a GSA.

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Tennessee

Tennessee school’s Gay Straight Alliance sparks debate at board meeting

One parent said he would remove his three children from the school system if they continued to support the GSA 

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Lakeland Middle Preparatory School (Photo Credit: Lakeland School System)

LAKELAND, Tn. – The creation of a “Gay Straight Alliance” (GSA) at a middle school in a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee, sparked a heated debate at a local school board meeting last week. 

Lakeland Middle Preparatory School’s pro-LGBTQ+ club starts when students return from winter break on January 3, 2022. Local news outlet Lakeland Currents reported that the school sent out an email to parents promoting the new club that said, “Join The G.S.A!”

Though the club is meant to provide a safe and supportive environment for LGBTQ+ students, some parents have fiercely opposed the club at a Lakeland School Board meeting on December 6. 

Chad and Heather Reynolds, who have an 8-year-old and 13-year-old in the school system, told the board that they want their sons to be educated, not “indoctrinated.”

The two were particularly concerned about social media posts by the GSA’s main sponsor, Lakeland drama teacher Mandy Christopher. 

“It’s all over her social media accounts,” Chad Reynolds said. “She has an agenda to infiltrate our school system with her beliefs.”

The Los Angeles Blade reviewed Christopher’s Facebook page and found no content related to the GSA. 

Another parent, Matt Thi, said he would remove his three children from the school system if they continued to support the GSA. “Where do we draw the line?” he asked the board. 

Former Lakeland Mayor Wyatt Bunker also spoke at the meeting, saying, “Is this the school system that we fought for? [A school system] that now clearly doesn’t align with our values.” 

Bunker added: “At this point, we have to take a stand.”

At the end of the public comment section, the board explained to concerned parents that they could not intervene, fearing potential litigation if they did. 

“Policy for the school says they will not deny any club based on that club’s belief,” said Eric Plumlee, the Lakeland School Board attorney, adding that “policy did not just come out of thin air. If you are going to allow some of them, you have to allow all of them.”

LSS Board of Education YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXA0cLbvshA

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