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ICE has detained lesbian mother from El Salvador since 2017

Jessica Patricia Barahona-Martinez has won asylum twice

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San Salvador, El Salvador, from the slope of El Boqueron, a volcano that overlooks the Salvadoran capital, on July 24, 2021. A lesbian woman from El Salvador who has been in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since June 2017 has asked a federal court in Louisiana to order her release. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

LAFAYETTE, La. — The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana on Wednesday asked a federal court to order the release of a lesbian mother from El Salvador who has been in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since June 2017

The writ for habeas corpus petition the ACLU filed in U.S. District for the Western District of Louisiana in Lafayette, La., on Jessica Patricia Barahona-Martinez’s behalf notes she and her three children entered the U.S. on May 31, 2016, “fleeing persecution she faced in El Salvador as a lesbian, and because the government had falsely identified her as a gang member.”

ICE released her “under conditions of supervision” and she “complied with these conditions for more than a year.”

ACLU Staff Attorney My Khanh Ngo on Thursday told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview that Barahona-Martinez, 40, was living with her sister and other family members in Woodbridge, Va., when ICE arrested and detained her on June 26, 2017.

“The sole reason for her arrest and detention was an Interpol Red Notice that was based on a Salvadoran warrant related to a charge of aggravated extortion for up to $30 — a charge for which she had initially been acquitted,” reads her petition.

She was at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail in Williamsburg, Va., before ICE transferred her to the Caroline Detention Facility in Bowling Green, Va., in October 2018. Barahona-Martinez arrived at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, a privately-run detention center the GEO Group, a Florida-based company, operates in Basile, La., in October 2020.

Barahona-Martinez’s petition notes an immigration judge has granted her asylum twice, most recently in November 2019, “on the grounds that she faces persecution on account of her sexual orientation.” The government appealed and the Board of Immigration Appeals, which the Justice Department oversees, ruled in their favor.

“In sustaining the government’s appeal of that grant, the Board of Immigration Appeals (‘BIA’ or ‘board’) did not address the merits of her asylum claim,” reads Barahona-Martinez’s petition. “Instead, in a two-to-one decision, over a strong dissent, it held that petitioner was ineligible for asylum under the ‘serious nonpolitical crime’ bar. The majority relied on the then-pending Interpol Red Notice and the Salvadoran warrant to find there were ‘serious reasons’ for believing she had committed such a crime. The dissenting Board member pointed out that petitioner had not only been acquitted of the alleged offense once, but had also submitted credible evidence to back up her claim of innocence.”

Her petition notes she appealed the Board of Immigration Appeals’ decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., “which granted her a stay of removal pending appeal, reflecting it assessment of the likelihood of her success on the merits of her appeal.” Her petition further indicates the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files, an independent body that oversees whether Interpol properly processes personal data, in April “permanently deleted the Interpol Red Notice that had been lodged against Ms. Barahona-Martinez” after her new lawyer made the request.

“Her pro bono counsel has since filed a motion to reopen proceedings before the BIA on this ground, as it is relevant to the board’s analysis of whether the serious nonpolitical crime bar applies to petitioner’s case and renders her ineligible for asylum,” reads the petition. “The government has agreed to hold her appeal in abeyance in light of the pending motion to reopen, yet ICE continues to detain Ms. Barahona-Martinez as her removal proceedings continue.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) in June 2020 told the Blade that detainees at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center did not have access to toilet paper or soap for nine days. The Illinois Democrat also said staff were not required to wear masks and they did not implement social distancing policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Ngo said Barahona-Martinez is at increased risk for COVID-19 because she has asthma. 

Ngo said a doctor gave Barahona-Martinez Tylenol when she showed COVID-19 symptoms, “and unsurprisingly she got extremely sick.” Ngo told the Blade that Barahona-Martinez a few weeks ago went to the emergency room because of “excruciating stomach pain.”

“It’s clear that she’s been deteriorating in detention, both physically and mentally,” said Ngo.

Ngo told the Blade that Barahona-Martinez’s asthma has become worse since arrived in Louisiana, and suffers panic attacks nearly every day. Ngo said the only way that Barahona-Martinez can “get back into a mental state that will keep her going” is by talking with her family.

“The food is rotten. She is afraid because she is gay in attention. She’s been harassed and threatened by both officers and other detainees because of her sexual orientation,” said Ngo. “She doesn’t feel safe there at all. She tries to keep to herself.”

Ngo said Barahona-Martinez works up to five hours a day in the facility’s kitchen. She earns around $3 a day.

Transgender woman murdered after US deported her to El Salvador

Discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity remains commonplace in El Salvador.

A court in San Salvador, the country’s capital, in 2020 sentenced three police officers to 20 years in prison for the murder of Camila Díaz Córdova, a Transgender woman. 

Díaz asked for asylum in the U.S. because of violence against LGBTQ+ and intersex Salvadorans. The U.S. deported her in 2017, and her friend reported her missing at the end of January 2019. Díaz died at a San Salvador hospital on Feb. 3, 2019.

Barahona-Martinez is from San Salvador.

President Nayib Bukele in March 2022 declared a state of emergency that allowed his government to crackdown on rampant gang violence. 

The Associated Press in July reported Salvadoran authorities have detained upwards of 70,000 people. Human Rights Watch and other groups say arbitrary arrests, torture of detainees and other human rights abuses have taken place since the crackdown began.

“The situation in El Salvador is much worse,” Ngo told the Blade. “It was bad in 2016 when she [Barahona-Martinez] fled, but with the state of emergency that’s in place right now, there’s been a lot of reporting about how much worse conditions are in the prisons against people who are accused of being with the gangs. There’s a lot of arbitrary detentions and killings and abuses.”

Ngo said Salvadoran authorities tortured Barahona-Martinez after they arrested her. Ngo said her former criminal defense attorney told her that Barahona-Martinez would be “in danger if she were returned” to El Salvador.

“She said, as much as possible, please keep her in the United States,” said Ngo. “She was known as a lesbian back then. It’s clear coming back they would know that she had applied for asylum in the United States and there’s the potential retaliation for that. She’s really risking her life if she’s sent back there.”

A billboard in San Salvador, El Salvador, on July 23, 2019, advises Salvadorans “not to lose your life in the gangs. It is easy to join, but the only way out is jail or death.” Gang violence has prompted tens of thousands of migrants from El Salvador and neighboring Honduras to seek refuge in the U.S. in recent years. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Barahona-Martinez’s petition names Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and South Louisiana ICE Processing Center Warden Eleazar Garcia are among those named as defendants.

ICE and the Department of Homeland Security have not responded to the Blade’s request for comment.

Barahona-Martinez, for her part, says she simply wants to be reunited with her children.

“I always think back on that day in 2017 when I was arrested by ICE and taken away from my children. They were so young at that time. I never thought that I would still be in detention six years later. I have missed so many of their birthdays, graduations, and other big life events,” she said in a statement to the ACLU. “Being separated from my children for this long has been so difficult, but I am fighting for a future here with them. All I want is the chance to show a judge why we should be reunited.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge may delay Alabama’s trans medical care ban trial

The law makes it a felony, punishable by 10 years in prison, for physicians to prescribe puberty blockers or HRT to trans youth under age 19

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The Frank M. Johnson Jr. Federal Building and United States Courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama, seen on January 24, 2023. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

By Jemma Stephenson | HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – A federal judge this past Thursday weighed arguments on whether to move to a trial over Alabama’s ban on gender-affirming medical care for individuals under the age of 19. 

During a roughly three-and-half-hour hearing Thursday, attorneys for the state and for transgender children and their families suing over the law considered the merits of moving forward while circuit courts around the country consider similar laws with different conclusions, and whether a trial over Alabama’s law could move forward as planned or be delayed.

Alabama’s 2022 law makes it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for physicians to prescribe puberty blockers or hormones to transgender youth under the age of 19. SB 184, sponsored by Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, also banned reconstructive surgery and genital surgeries on minors, which providers have stressed do not happen in Alabama.

The families that filed suit said the ban would jeopardize the physical and psychological health of their children. The state repeatedly questioned the effectiveness of the treatments. 

Following a two-day hearing in 2022, U.S. District Judge Liles C. Burke issued a preliminary injunction against the law, ruling that it interfered with parental rights.

The state appealed to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a federal panel reversed the injunction. U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Lagoa, whose ruling cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision overturning federal abortion rights, wrote that earlier rulings did “not establish that parents have a derivative fundamental right to obtain a particular medical treatment for their children as long as a critical mass of medical professionals approve.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case moved for an en banc hearing where the entire 11th Circuit would hear the case. The full circuit had not ruled on the motion as of Thursday afternoon.

In Burke’s court on Thursday, Jeff Doss, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said that the decision to go to trial was a “purely discretionary” one for the court. The attorney said the full 11th Circuit — covering Alabama, Georgia and Florida — may not have the votes for the en banc hearing but said the court might not want “active machinery” until “we see there are further developments.”

The motion for the stay filed by the plaintiffs on May 3 also referenced waiting to see if pending cases in Tennessee and Kentucky were taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Burke told Doss to be trial ready for a regular track, but told Alabama Solicitor General Edmund LaCour, arguing for the state, that Doss’s statements were persuasive.

LaCour said they had “done a lot of work over the past two years.”

“We need a decision right away,” he said.

LaCour told Burke that it has become a “playbook” for the United States to enter the cases and ask for trust from doctors rather than lawmakers.

LaCour also referenced sealed evidence that the state had and said they had created a “very robust record.”

Burke said that they were “reading tea leaves,” and they did not know what would happen. He said he did not see the harm in waiting three months and that it is “certainly possible I could be reversed twice.”

LaCour told Burke that he could rule on a summary judgment, or a judgment entered without a full trial. 

Burke told LaCour that the state could enforce the law now, but LaCour replied that they had spent a lot of time on the case. 

“At some point, when is it our turn to finally get justice?” he said.

Burke said he was sympathetic to LaCour’s statements that one plaintiff has already aged out, and they might need new experts.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall was in attendance Thursday but did not present any of the state’s arguments.

Burke told the court that he was going to think more, but he checked around the room for major conflicts for Oct. 27, which no one objected to.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs have faced accusations of judge-shopping after they dismissed and refiled the case in 2022, prior to the two-day hearing. Burke clarified with one attorney Thursday that judge shopping is prohibited under the 11th Circuit.

Burke spent over an hour meeting with the attorneys – and their attorneys – in separate meetings Thursday on the format for hearings in the matter. While they met, the attorneys went around speaking in small groups amongst themselves. 

“Think we’ve got a plan,” Burke said at the end, saying that he would be open to attorneys taking the lead on discussion, or doing that himself. 

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Jemma Stephenson

Jemma Stephenson covers education as a reporter for the Alabama Reflector. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser and graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Alabama Reflector and is republished with permission.

The Alabama Reflector is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to covering state government and politics in the state of Alabama. Through daily coverage and investigative journalism, The Reflector covers decision makers in Montgomery; the issues affecting Alabamians, and potential ways to move our state forward.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Guilty plea in Grindr cyberstalking, sextortion & id theft of gay men

He targeted young gay men on Grindr to obtain their sexually explicit photographs & videos consensually & used them to extort money or sex

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Joseph P. Kinneary United States Courthouse in Columbus, Ohio is home to the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Ohio and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Photo Credit: The Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Omoruyi O. Uwadiae, 28, of Chicago, offered a guilty plea in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, May 22 to cyberstalking, sextortion and identity theft crimes. His scheme involved dozens of victims in multiple states, including Ohio, Colorado and Washington.

According to his plea documents, Uwadiae admitted to obtaining sexually explicit photographs and videos from potential victims and then using the content to threaten them. Uwadiae threatened to distribute the explicit material widely on the internet and specifically to victims’ friends, family members, employers and others.

The defendant demanded money from some victims. From others, he demanded they meet him, have sex with him, or make damaging admissions such as admissions that they were racist. On multiple occasions, Uwadiae carried through with his threats. He sent sexually explicit photographs and videos to the victims’ friends, family members (including at least one victim’s mother, at least one victim’s brother, and at least one victim’s sister), employers and acquaintances, and also posted sexually explicit photographs and videos widely on the internet.

Multiple victims had not publicly disclosed their sexual orientation, which Uwadiae’s actions disclosed, contrary to their wishes. The defendant also used victims’ identifications to create false accounts on social media and post personal information about the victims online.

Uwadiae targeted young gay men on Grindr and other online sites. He would obtain their sexually explicit photographs and videos consensually and then use them to extort. In some cases, he posted their nude images on Male General without their consent and then demanded money or other things of value to take down the images. Male General is a blog marketed to gay men containing, among other things, boards where users can post images and text.

For example, one victim was a student at The Ohio State University who communicated with Uwadiae on Grindr. Uwadiae ultimately demanded that the victim either pay him $200 or have sex with him. When the victim did not comply, Uwadiae created false social media accounts using true photos of the victim, stating, “this guy is gay, see pics for evidence.” The victim had not disclosed his sexual orientation to his family and had told Uwadiae he was concerned that his family would react negatively if they learned he was bisexual.

Uwadiae was charged in the Southern District of Ohio in April.

As part of his plea, Uwadiae pleaded guilty to 22 total counts. He pleaded guilty to eight counts of cyberstalking (punishable by up to five years in prison), seven counts of making interstate communications with the intent to extort (up to two years in prison) and seven counts of unlawfully using a means of identification (up to five years in prison).

Kenneth L. Parker, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, announced the guilty plea offered today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Norah McCann King. The case was investigated by the FBI and the Columbus, Ohio Police Department.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Supreme Court declines Maryland anti-LGBTQ+ guidelines suit

Three parents of students in the school district outside of D.C., — none of whom have trans children — filed the lawsuit

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U.S. Supreme Court (Photo: Washington Blade/Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a lawsuit against Montgomery County Public Schools guidelines that allow schools to create plans in support of transgender or gender non-confirming students without their parents’ knowledge or consent.

Three parents of students in the school district in suburban Maryland outside of D.C., — none of whom have trans or gender non-confirming children — filed the lawsuit. 

A judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last August dismissed the case. The plaintiffs appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal court: Maryland parents cannot opt out of LGBTQ lessons

The lawsuit challenges Montgomery County Public Schools’ policy that “mandates the inclusion of literature with LGBTQ+ characters”

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Lewis F. Powell Jr. Courthouse, United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: U.S. Courts/GSA)

RICHMOND, Va. – A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled a group of Montgomery County parents cannot “opt out” their children from classes in which lessons or books on LGBTQ-related topics are taught.

The parents filed their lawsuit in May 2023.

An American Civil Liberties Union press release notes the lawsuit challenges Montgomery County Public Schools’ policy that “mandates the inclusion of literature with LGBTQ+ characters as part of the ELA (English and Language Arts) curriculum, aiming to promote understanding and acceptance among students.” 

“Although the district originally allowed parents to opt their children out of some ELA lessons, it rescinded the opt-out policy because the number of requests grew too difficult to manage, student absenteeism soared, and it created a stigmatizing environment for students who are LGBTQ or have LGBTQ family members, undermining the purpose of the inclusivity requirement,” said the ACLU.

U.S. District Judge Deborah L. Boardman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland ruled against the parents. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., upheld the decision.

“We’re talking about books like ‘Pride Puppy,’ which is light-hearted and affirming,” said ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon in a press release. “During a time of intensifying calls to ban books and limit access to information about LGBTQ+ people and identities, this ruling in support of inclusion in education matters.”

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11th Circuit rules against trans exclusions, cites Title VII guidance

In making its decision, the court referenced two recent developments that may change the legal landscape for transgender people

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Photo Credit: Houston County, Georgia Sheriff's Department/Facebook

By Erin Reed | ATLANTA, Ga. – On Monday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that transgender health insurance exclusions violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The case was brought by a transgender employee of the Houston County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia who was denied coverage for gender-affirming surgery.

The employee sued in 2019, and after a protracted lawsuit, won at the district court level. Now, with this 11th Circuit Court ruling in favor of transgender employees, a significant precedent is building to protect transgender employees against health insurance restrictions that deny them the ability to get gender-affirming care.

The employee in question first transitioned in 2017. After informing Sheriff Cullen Talton at the Houston County Sheriff’s Office of her decision to transition, she was told that he “does not believe in” being transgender, but that she would be allowed to keep her job.

However, when it came time to obtain gender-affirming surgery, significant controversy erupted: her claims were denied. When she filed a lawsuit to have her surgery covered, the sheriff’s office and county fought against her right to equitable health care coverage.

Since then, the county has spent incredible amounts of money denying the plaintiff her care. As of 2023, Houston County, Georgia, had spent $1,188,701 fighting against providing health care coverage for the transgender plaintiff.

This is significant: ProPublica reports that it is over three times the county’s annual physical and mental health budget. Importantly, no other employee has requested coverage for gender-affirming surgery, so fighting against coverage has significantly cost the county far more than it would have gained by simply providing the employee with that coverage.

Ultimately, a lower court ruled in her favor, stating that such exclusions violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In the decision, the judge stated, “the implication of Bostock is clear… discrimination on the basis of transgender status is discrimination on the basis of sex and is a violation of Title VII.”

The judge then ruled that the exclusion was facially discriminatory and violates Title VII. In doing so, he ordered that the county must drop such exclusions. The plaintiff was also awarded $60,000 following the ruling.

The county appealed the ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which seemed primed to potentially reverse it. Recently, the 11th Circuit has issued harsh rulings toward transgender individuals, such as a ruling that gender-affirming care bans for transgender youth do not violate Equal Protection and Due Process rights.

In this particular case, though, the court considered a different argument: whether such exclusions on transgender insurance coverage violate employment law under the Civil Rights Act. The 11th Circuit concluded that they did: “The exclusion is a blanket denial of coverage for gender-affirming surgery… because transgender persons are the only plan participants who qualify for gender-affirming surgery, the plan denies health care coverage based on transgender status.”

Determination that insurance exclusions violate Title VII.

In making its decision, the court referenced two recent developments that may change the legal landscape for transgender people.

In one footnote, the court mentioned Kadel v. Folwell, a case just decided in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, with the court ruling that discrimination against transgender health care violates the Equal Protection Clause. Though it does not reference the case elsewhere, the 11th Circuit used similar legal arguments: that you cannot circumvent discrimination cases by discriminating by proxy. In this case, like in the Kadel case, the judge ruled that discriminating against transgender health care is also discriminating against transgender status.

The judge ruled that the defendant’s “sex is inextricably tied to the denial of coverage for gender-affirming surgery,” and thus, one cannot circumvent discrimination statutes by claiming they are only discriminating against a procedure and not a category of people.

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The court also referenced new Title VII guidance from the Biden administration in a footnote when making its decision that exclusions violate those regulations. On April 29, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued updated guidance stating that Title VII protections include protections on gender identity.

Although the guidance does not have the force of law, “numerous courts, including the Supreme Court, have said: Because these guidelines are based on the expertise and careful reasoning of the agency that’s charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws, they’re to be given deference by the courts,” Christopher Ho, the director of the National Origin and Immigrants’ Rights Program at Legal Aid at Work, stated in an interview with the Washington Post at the time of the guidelines’ release. Now, it appears that a major court, which has ruled against transgender rights in the past, has indeed given those guidelines some credit in their ruling.

Title VII guidelines playing a role in reversing trans healthcare exclusions in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The ruling is significant and will likely be one of the many rulings referenced whenever such cases eventually reach the Supreme Court. Multiple courts have ruled in favor of transgender people and their health care, but some significant courts, including in a recent decision by the 11th Circuit Court on health care for transgender youth, have ruled against such legal protections. It is likely that this decision will be cited favorably in many other court cases in the coming months.

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Erin Reed is a transgender woman (she/her pronouns) and researcher who tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the world and helps people become better advocates for their queer family, friends, colleagues, and community. Reed also is a social media consultant and public speaker.

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The preceding article was first published at Erin In The Morning and is republished with permission.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge: Teachers can challenge Tennessee instruction law

“I’m thrilled the judge listened to our concerns as educators & seemed to understand that this law puts teachers in an impossible position”

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Tennessee Education Association/Los Angeles Blade graphic

By Marta Aldrich | NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee teachers can move forward with their lawsuit challenging a 3-year-old state law restricting what they can teach about race, gender, and bias.

U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case.

The Nashville judge also sided with educators over questions of whether they have legal grounds to sue the state, plus whether the federal court is the appropriate jurisdiction to take up complaints about the 2021 state law.

And in a 50-page memorandum to explain her single-page order, Trauger was frequently critical of the statute, which restricts teachers from discussing 14 concepts that the Republican-controlled legislature deemed cynical or divisive. She also cited shortcomings of related rules, developed by the state education department, to outline the processes for filing and investigating complaints, appealing decisions, and levying punishment that could strip teachers of their licenses and school districts of state funding.

“The Act simply invites a vast array of potentially dissatisfied individuals to lodge complaints based on their understanding of those concepts and then calls on the Commissioner [of Education], as a sort of state philosopher, to think deeply about what equality, impartiality, and other abstract concepts really mean and enforce the Act accordingly,” Trauger wrote in her May 2 memorandum.

“I’m thrilled that the judge listened to our concerns as educators and seemed to understand that this law puts teachers in an impossible position,”– Kathryn Vaughn, Tipton County teacher

Meanwhile, educators are at the mercy of the personal biases of authorities, which is “exactly what the doctrine of unconstitutional vagueness is intended to guard against,” she said.

The so-called prohibited concepts law was among the first of its kind in the nation that passed amid a conservative backlash to the racial-justice movement and protests prompted by the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Among its prohibitions are classroom discussions about whether “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”

The law’s defenders note that it permits an “impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history,” or as Rep. John Ragan, the House sponsor, described it: “facts-based” instruction.

But teachers say they don’t know how to be impartial when teaching about the theories of racial superiority that led to slavery and Jim Crow laws. The resulting confusion has influenced the small but pivotal decisions they make every day about how to prepare for a lesson, what materials to use, and how to answer a student’s question, ultimately stifling classroom discussion, many critics of the law assert.

Last July, lawyers for five public school educators and the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher organization, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Nashville.

The suit says the language of the law is unconstitutionally vague and that the state’s enforcement plan is subjective. The complaint also says the statute interferes with instruction on difficult but important topics included in state-approved academic standards, which dictate other decisions around curriculum and testing.

Trauger, who taught school for three years before entering law school, suggested that the ambiguity could lead to a lack of due process for educators under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

“That does not mean that a law has to be wise or perfect or crystal clear, but it must mean something concrete and specific that a well-informed person can understand by reading its text,” she wrote in her memorandum.

Kathryn Vaughn, a Tipton County teacher who is among the plaintiffs, called the judge’s decision an important early step in the legal challenge.

“I’m thrilled that the judge listened to our concerns as educators and seemed to understand that this law puts teachers in an impossible position,” she told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

A spokesperson for the state attorney general’s office, which filed a motion for dismissal last September, declined to comment on the new development.

The judge set a June 17 scheduling meeting with attorneys in the case to discuss how to manage the litigation going forward.

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Marta Aldrich

Marta Aldrich is Senior Statehouse Correspondent for Chalkbeat Tennessee.

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for their newsletters at ckbe.at/newsletters.

Sign up for Chalkbeat Tennessee’s free daily newsletter to keep up with statewide education policy and Memphis-Shelby County Schools.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Tennessee Lookout and is republished with permission.

Now more than ever, tough and fair journalism is important. The Tennessee Lookout is your watchdog, telling the stories of politics and policy that affect the people of the Volunteer State.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Man sentenced for obstruction in murder of Black Trans woman

“Pinckney’s obstructive actions delayed justice for Dime Doe and accountability for his co-defendant,” said the FBI Columbia Field Office

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The headquarters of the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division, Columbia, SC (Photo Credit: State of SC SLED)

COLUMBIA, SC – A South Carolina man was sentenced today to obstructing an investigation into the December 2019 murder of a transgender woman.

Xavier Pinckney, 24, was sentenced to 45 months in prison for providing false and misleading information to state authorities investigating the murder of Dime Doe. He previously pleaded guilty on Oct 26, 2023.

“The defendant’s sentence is part of our effort to fully seek justice and accountability following the tragic murder of a Black transgender woman,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The message should be clear: The Justice Department will fully investigate and prosecute those who target the Black transgender community and that includes those who unlawfully obstruct investigations into these heinous crimes. We want the Black trans community to know that we stand with the LGBTQI+ community, we reject transphobic-fueled violence, and that we will seek justice for victims and their families.”

“Pinckney’s obstruction delayed our investigation and delayed justice for Dime Doe,” said U.S. Attorney Adair F. Boroughs for the District of South Carolina. “Fortunately, Pinckney confessed his lies and his role in the coverup of her murder. This sentence underscores that no one who stands in the way of justice will go unpunished.”

“Pinckney’s obstructive actions delayed justice for Dime Doe and accountability for his co-defendant,” said Special Agent in Charge Steve Jensen of the FBI Columbia Field Office. “No matter the obstacle, the FBI and our law enforcement partners are poised to defend the rights and protections of all citizens, and those who engage in criminal activity will be met with the full weight of our investigative and prosecutorial power.”

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According to court documents, Pinckney admitted that he concealed from the state authorities the use of his phone to call and text Doe the day of her murder, and he lied to state investigators about seeing his co-defendant, Daqua Ritter, on the morning of Doe’s murder. Ritter was convicted of a hate crime, firearms charge and obstruction of justice in a jury trial arising out of the Ritter’s murder of Doe. Ritter was the first defendant to be found guilty by trial verdict for a hate crime motivated by gender identity under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The FBI Columbia Field Office investigated the case, with the assistance of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, Allendale County Sheriff’s Office and Allendale Police Department.

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U.S. Federal Courts

4th U.S. Circuit Court: Gender identity is a protected characteristic

The court ruled that gender identity is a protected characteristic & Medicaid bans on treatments for gender dysphoria are unconstitutional

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Lewis F. Powell Jr. Courthouse, United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Richmond, Virginia (Photo Credit: U.S. Courts/GSA)

By Erin Reed | RICHMOND, Va. – The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that transgender people are a protected class and that Medicaid bans on transgender care are unconstitutional.

Furthermore, the court ruled that discriminating based on a diagnosis of gender dysphoria is discrimination based on gender identity and sex. The ruling is in response to lower court challenges against state laws and policies in North Carolina and West Virginia that prevent transgender people on state plans or Medicaid from obtaining coverage for gender-affirming care; those lower courts found such exclusions unconstitutional.

In issuing the final ruling, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that transgender exclusions were “obviously discriminatory” and were “in violation of the equal protection clause” of the U.S. Constitution, upholding lower court rulings that barred the discriminatory exclusions.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling focused on two cases in states within its jurisdiction: North Carolina and West Virginia. In North Carolina, transgender state employees who rely on the State Health Plan were unable to use it to obtain gender-affirming care for gender dysphoria diagnoses.

In West Virginia, a similar exclusion applied to those on the state’s Medicaid plan for surgeries related to a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Both exclusions were overturned by lower courts, and both states appealed to the 4th Circuit.

Attorneys for the states had argued that the policies were not discriminatory because the exclusions for gender affirming care “apply to everyone, not just transgender people.” The majority of the court, however, struck down such a claim, pointing to several other cases where such arguments break down, such as same-sex marriage bans “applying to straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people equally,” even though straight people would be entirely unaffected by such bans.

Other cases cited included literacy tests, a tax on wearing kippot for Jewish people, and interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia.

See this portion of the court analysis here:

4th Circuit rules against legal argument that transgender treatment bans do not discriminate against transgender people because “they apply to everyone”

Of particular note in the majority opinion was a section on Geduldig v. Aiello that seemed laser-targeted toward an eventual Supreme Court decision on discriminatory policies targeting transgender people. Geduldig v. Aiello, a 1974 ruling, determined that pregnancy discrimination is not inherently sex discrimination because it does not “classify on sex,” but rather, on pregnancy status.

Using similar arguments, the states claimed that gender affirming care exclusions did not classify or discriminate based on transgender status or sex, but rather, on a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and treatments to alleviate that dysphoria.

The majority was unconvinced, ruling, “gender dysphoria is so intimately related to transgender status as to be virtually indistinguishable from it. The excluded treatments aim at addressing incongruity between sex assigned at birth and gender identity, the very heart of transgender status.” In doing so, the majority cited several cases, many from after Geduldig was decided.

Notably, Geduldig was cited in both the 6th and 11th Circuit decisions upholding gender affirming care bans in a handful of states.

The court also pointed to the potentially ridiculous conclusions that strict readings of what counts as proxy discrimination could lead to, such as if legislators attempted to use “XX chromosomes” and “XY chromosomes” to get around sex discrimination policies:

The 4th Circuit Majority rebuts the State’s proxy discrimination argument.

Importantly, the court also rebutted recent arguments that Bostock applies only to “limited Title VII claims involving employers who fired” LGBTQ+ employees, and not to Title IX, which the Affordable Care Act’s anti-discrimination mandate references. The majority stated that this is not the case, and that there is “nothing in Bostock to suggest the holding was that narrow.”

Ultimately, the court ruled that the exclusions on transgender care violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The court also ruled that the West Virginia Medicaid Program violates the Medicaid Act and the anti-discrimination provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Additionally, the court upheld the dismissal of anti-trans expert testimony for lacking relevant expertise. West Virginia and North Carolina must end transgender care exclusions in line with earlier district court decisions.

The decision will likely have nationwide impacts on court cases in other districts. The case had become a major battleground for transgender rights, with dozens of states filing amicus briefs in favor or against the protection of the equal process rights of transgender people. Twenty-one Republican states filed an amicus brief in favor of denying transgender people anti-discrimination protections in healthcare, and 17 Democratic states joined an amicus brief in support of the healthcare rights of transgender individuals.

Many Republican states are defending anti-trans laws that discriminate against transgender people by banning or limiting gender-affirming care. These laws could come under threat if the legal rationale used in this decision is adopted by other circuits. In the 4th Circuit’s jurisdiction, West Virginia and North Carolina already have gender-affirming care bans for transgender youth in place, and South Carolina may consider a similar bill this week.

The decision could potentially be used as precedent to challenge all of those laws in the near future and to deter South Carolina’s bill from passing into law.

The decision is the latest in a web of legal battles concerning transgender people. Earlier this month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also reversed a sports ban in West Virginia, ruling that Title IX protects transgender student athletes. However, the U.S. Supreme Court recently narrowed a victory for transgender healthcare from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and allowed Idaho to continue enforcing its ban on gender-affirming care for everyone except the two plaintiffs in the case.

Importantly, that decision was not about the constitutionality of gender-affirming care, but the limits of temporary injunctions in the early stages of a constitutional challenge to discriminatory state laws. It is likely that the Supreme Court will ultimately hear cases on this topic in the near future.

Celebrating the victory, Lambda Legal Counsel and Health Care Strategist Omar Gonzalez-Pagan said in a posted statement, “The court’s decision sends a clear message that gender-affirming care is critical medical care for transgender people and that denying it is harmful and unlawful…We hope this decision makes it clear to policy makers across the country that health care decisions belong to patients, their families, and their doctors, not to politicians.” 

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Erin Reed is a transgender woman (she/her pronouns) and researcher who tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the world and helps people become better advocates for their queer family, friends, colleagues, and community. Reed also is a social media consultant and public speaker.

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The preceding article was first published at Erin In The Morning and is republished with permission.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Okla. trans bathroom law appealed after federal judge dismisses it

One of the defendants was state Superintendent Ryan Walters, the most vocal advocate of outlawing school bathroom use by gender identity

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An Oklahoma City federal court judge dismissed a lawsuit that the families of three transgender students had filed in 2022 to challenge a law regulating school bathroom use by biological sex. (Photo by Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice)

By Nuria Martinez-Keel | OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – A lawsuit challenging an Oklahoma law affecting transgender students’ use of school restrooms has been appealed after being dismissed in Oklahoma City federal court.

The families of three transgender students sued the Oklahoma State Department of Education in 2022 to overturn Senate Bill 615, which they said is unconstitutional and a Title IX violation. 

SB 615 required school restrooms to be used according to a person’s biological sex, not their gender identity. A single-occupant restroom also must be available as an alternative.

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma appealed U.S. District Judge Jodi W. Dishman’s decision to throw out the lawsuit. Last month, Dishman fully dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled.

The dismissal was “mildly surprising” because it means the judge didn’t just disagree, but found the plaintiffs’ claims to be meritless, said Devraat Awasthi, an ACLU legal fellow working on the case. 

The ACLU of Oklahoma has appealed Dishman’s decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“SB 615 is a law that elevates the privacy and safety interest of cisgender students above those of transgender and nonbinary students, and that violates the Constitution’s promise of equality under the law,” Awasthi said. “That’s a promise that all Oklahomans care about, and I think that we are vindicating that important commitment by bringing this appeal.”

Dishman ruled in favor of the state Attorney General’s Office, who contended treatment based on gender identity doesn’t amount to sex discrimination under Title IX.

The three plaintiffs don’t present a danger to fellow students, the judge wrote in her court order, but she decided striking down the law could create a safety issue.

“If the Court adopted Plaintiffs’ position, any biological male could claim to be transgender and then be allowed to use the same restroom or changing area as girls,” Dishman wrote. “This is a major safety concern.

“However, if Plaintiffs’ arguments were adopted, it would put school officials in the position of either having to conduct a subjective analysis of the sincerity of an individual’s gender identity or merely take their word for it.”

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the case.

 State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks during an Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting Aug. 24 in Oklahoma City. (Photo by Brent Fuchs/For Oklahoma Voice)

One of the defendants was state Superintendent Ryan Walters, the head of the state Education Department. He has been one of the most vocal advocates of outlawing school bathroom use by gender identity, saying it puts female students at risk.

“The (U.S.) District Court was correct in recognizing the real physiological differences between men and women, and the real interest of parents in protecting their kids,” Walters said in a statement. “Oklahomans strongly oppose the radical left trying to force young girls to share bathrooms with boys, and I will always fight to protect our students.”

Walters also has been a supporter of Oklahoma laws that prohibit gender-affirming medical care for minors and that block transgender girls from playing in women’s sports. He pursued new rules at the Education Department to prevent students from retroactively changing prior school records to match their gender identity.

Laws like these embolden bullies and put transgender students at risk, Awasthi said. 

He pointed to the death of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary student from Owasso who had reported bullying. A medical examiner’s report found Benedict, 16, died by suicide on Feb. 8, a day after the student was in a fight in a school restroom. 

“I think an important facet of laws like this in general is it gives cover to bullies and to bigots in our society because it makes them think their kind of discriminatory intent is supported by the state,” Awasthi said. “It kind of gives almost permission for that kind of horrible treatment to occur in our public schools.”

Walters called this argument around Benedict’s death a “grotesquely distorted radical, progressive, Democrat narrative” in a Fox News opinion piece he published on Thursday. Walters’ editorial repeatedly referred to Benedict as a girl, despite the Benedict family having said this is an inaccurate description of who the student was. 

About a dozen other states had passed similar bathroom bills by the time Oklahoma’s governor signed SB 615 into law. Legal challenges have succeeded in overturning similar legislation elsewhere in the country. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand two rulings from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmed students’ rights to use the restroom that matches their gender identity.

New rules the U.S. Department of Education introduced on Friday include gender identity protections in Title IX.

A co-author of SB 615, Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, said several Oklahoma lawmakers worked on the bill’s language to “give that safety and that security to the kids.” He said the legislation’s authors chose not to borrow bill language from other states. 

“I think that might have helped some in it being able to stand up (in court) because we had so many different eyes on it and so many people working on it,” West said.

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Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Oklahoma Voice and is republished with permission.

Oklahoma Voice provides independent, nonpartisan reporting that holds officials accountable and elevates the voices of those too often sidelined by the political process.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Appeals court strikes down West Virginia trans athlete ban

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey vowed to defend the ban and said he is “deeply disappointed” in the decision

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The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday blocked West Virginia’s ban on transgender athletes, finding the law violates transgender students’ rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the constitution. The ban was challenged by Becky Pepper-Jackson (pictured) a 13-year-old transgender student athlete from West Virginia. (Billy Wolfe/ACLU photo)

By Lori Kersey | RICHMOND, Va. – The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down West Virginia’s ban on transgender athletes, finding the law violates transgender students’ rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the constitution and Title IX, a federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on sex in education programs.

The case, B.P.J. vs. the West Virginia Board of Education, was filed in May 2021 on behalf of Becky Pepper-Jackson, a 13-year-old transgender middle school student and track athlete who would be barred from participating if the ban is upheld. Pepper-Jackson is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia and Lambda Legal.

In April 2021, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed into law a bill prohibiting transgender women and girls in the state from participating in sports that align with their gender identity. The U.S. Court of Appeals in February 2023 blocked the state from removing Pepper-Jackson from her school’s track and field team as legal advocates appealed a lower court’s ruling upholding the ban. 

In Tuesday’s ruling, Judge Toby Heytens wrote that offering Pepper-Jackson the “choice” between not participating in sports and participating only on boys teams is not a real choice.

“The defendants cannot expect that B.P.J. will countermand her social transition, her medical treatment, and all the work she has done with her schools, teachers, and coaches for nearly half her life by introducing herself to teammates, coaches, and even opponents as a boy,” the judge wrote. 

“By participating on boys teams, B.P.J. would be sharing the field with boys who are larger, stronger, and faster than her because of the elevated levels of circulating testosterone she lacks,” he wrote. “The Act thus exposes B.P.J. to the very harms Title IX is meant to prevent by effectively ‘exclud[ing]’ her from ‘participation in’ all non-coed sports entirely.”

In a statement Tuesday, Joshua Block, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project, called the court’s ruling “a tremendous victory for our client, transgender West Virginians, and the freedom of all youth to play as who they are.”

“It also continues a string of federal courts ruling against bans on the participation of transgender athletes and in favor of their equal participation as the gender they know themselves to be,” Block wrote. “This case is fundamentally about the equality of transgender youth in our schools and our communities and we’re thankful the Fourth Circuit agreed.” 

“We hope today’s ruling sends a message of hope to the trans youth of West Virginia,” Aubrey Sparks, legal director of the ACLU of West Virginia, said in the statement. “And a message of warning to politicians who continue to dehumanize this vulnerable population.”

West Virginia is one of 21 states that have banned transgender student-athletes over the last three years, according to the ACLU. 

In a statement Tuesday, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey vowed to defend the ban and said he is “deeply disappointed” in the decision. 

“The Save Women’s Sports Act is ‘constitutionally permissible’ and the law complies with Title IX,” Morrisey said. “I will keep fighting to safeguard Title IX. We must keep working to protect women’s sports so that women’s safety is secured and girls have a truly fair playing field. We know the law is correct and will use every available tool to defend it.”

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Lori Kersey

Lori Kersey is a reporter with a decade of experience reporting in West Virginia. She covers state government for West Virginia Watch.

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The preceding article was previously published by the West Virginia Watch and is republished with permission.

Nonprofit, nonpartisan, independent journalism not hidden behind a paywall. Mountaineers are always free, and so is West Virginia Watch.

West Virginia Watch is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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