A federal appeals court ruled that the Linn-Mar Community School District in Iowa most likely violated students’ first amendment rights with a vague “transgender” policy requiring that they “respect a student’s gender identity.”
Parents Defending Education (PDE) filed a lawsuit in August 2022, on behalf of a number of parents and their children, alleging that the policy violated parental rights and free speech.
Dozens of family-friendly organizations, including Focus on the Family, filed an amici brief supporting the lawsuit.
PDE President and Founder Nicole Neily celebrated the decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, saying:
We are gratified that the Eighth Circuit upheld the rights of families and students in Linn-Mar. It is never acceptable to prohibit speech with vague terms that allow arbitrary enforcement, especially when compelled student speech is at stake, and this sends a clear message to other districts across the country with similar bullying and harassment policies on the books.
The regulations directed schools to create a “Gender Support Plan” at the request of a student with sexual identity confusion and to accommodate “transgender students regarding names/pronouns, restroom and locker facilities, overnight accommodations on school trips, and participation in activities.”
The policy stated, “Conversations between students and school counselors are protected, confidential conversations under applicable counselor/student laws,” and it said school staff could not disclose a “student’s transgender status to others” – including parents – “unless the student has authorized such disclosure.”
It also said, “Intentional and/or persistent refusal by staff or students to respect a student’s gender identity is a violation of school board policies,” and students who violated the policy could be disciplined – including “suspension and expulsion.”
A lower court ruled against PDE and the parents, so they appealed.
But in the meantime, the Iowa State Legislature passed Senate File 496, an education bill that banned books with written and visual depictions of sex; forbade schools from teaching kindergarten through sixth grade students about homosexuality and transgenderism; and required parental notification if a student began going by a different name at school.
The court ruled that the new law, which took effect in July 2023, made parts of the lawsuit moot, since the legislature had already addressed the issues.
But a problem remained: the policy required students and staff to “respect a student’s gender identity.”
What did that mean? Did it mean students and staff had to agree with gender ideology? What does it mean to “respect” someone’s gender identity?
According to the ruling, several parents stated that they and “their children believe that biological sex is immutable and that people cannot ‘transition’ from one sex to another.”
They explained that “because the policy requires a student to ‘respect’ another student’s gender identity, their children face discipline if they do not affirm beliefs with which they disagree or if they express views that are deemed ‘disrespectful’ by an administrator.”
Parents said their children were forced to “remain silent in school environments or refrain from using sex-specific pronouns to avoid violating the policy.”
The court ruled, “The District’s policy does not provide adequate notice of what conduct is prohibited, because it fails to define the term ‘respect,’” adding, “The lack of clarity also makes the policy susceptible to arbitrary enforcement.”
The case, Parents Defending Education v. Linn-Mar, was sent back to a lower court for reconsideration and the school district was enjoined from “enforcing the portion of the policy prohibiting an intentional or persistent refusal ‘to respect a student’s gender identity.’”
A recent report showed that more than 1,000 school districts, covering more than 10.7 million students, have “Transgender/Gender Nonconforming Policies,” similar to the one passed by the Linn-Mar school board, allowing schools to hide a child’s sexual identity confusion from parents.
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