Arkansas teen, attorney general file federal lawsuit over Title IX transgender protections

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin announces a federal lawsuit against a new Title IX rule that protects transgender students from discrimination in school-related activities. With him at a Tuesday, May 7, 2024, press conference in Little Rock are, left to right, Amelia Ford, a 15-year-old basketball player; Arkansas Solicitor General Nicholas Bronni; and Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey. (Mary Hennigan/Arkansas Advocate)

The top lawyers for Arkansas and Missouri on Tuesday announced the filing of a lawsuit with four other states, including Nebraska, against the U.S. Department of Education’s change to Title IX that, among other things, codifies protections for LGBTQ+ students.

The federal rule, announced in April, protects students and school employees from sex-based discrimination, requires schools to offer support for people who make complaints, sets guidelines for schools and includes transgender students in the law’s protections. It is expected to go into effect Aug. 1.

The 60-page lawsuit alleges the education department has exceeded its authority by rewriting the statute. It also claims the rule violates the First Amendment, is arbitrary and capricious by going against “decades” of understanding of Title IX and presents “an actual controversy” by redefining “sex” to include gender identity.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, seeks to ultimately stop the federal rule’s effective date.

Focused on transgender athletes

Though Title IX applies beyond school athletics, Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin and Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey largely focused on transgender students joining girls’ sports teams during a Tuesday press conference in Little Rock.

Amelia Ford, a 15-year-old sophomore at Brookland High School near Jonesboro, and her mother, Sara, are named plaintiffs in the lawsuit and attended the press conference.

Amelia Ford, 15, speaks at a press conference in Little Rock on May 7, 2024, where Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin announced he and five other state attorneys general are suing the U.S. Department of Education over an expansion of federal Title IX protections to transgender students. Amelia and her mother are also plaintiffs in the litigation. (Mary Hennigan/Arkansas Advocate)

Amelia, a basketball player, said she’s worked hard to earn her spot on the team, and doesn’t want that opportunity taken away from her. She also expressed concerns about the possibility of having “a boy who identifies as a girl” in her bathroom, locker room or hotel room during overnight sports trips.

“You don’t just become a girl by what you feel or by what you think,” Amelia said. “The government should not force us to disregard common sense and reality.”

The lawsuit mentions Amelia’s faith several times and states it would violate her Christian beliefs to refer to someone using pronouns that don’t align with the person’s biological sex.

Bailey referred to the Title IX rule as being “in favor of a radical transgender ideology,” and Griffin seemed baffled by the idea of such a proposed change.

“For a legal suit, it can’t just be ridiculous, nonsensical, hard to believe, outrageous — there has to be a legal basis,” said Griffin, who also added that he thinks “nationally, a vast majority of people think this whole thing is nonsensical.”

Asked whether he saw the lawsuit as harmful to transgender students, Griffin said, “No, I see it as following the law.”

Other states involved in the lawsuit are Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. More than a dozen other states have also filed suit against Title IX in their own federal courts, and more are expected.

An already vulnerable community

Griffin’s lawsuit comes days after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order instructing public schools to follow state law instead of the federal Title IX rule when it goes into effect in August.

“My message to Joe Biden and the federal government is that we will not comply,” Sanders said during the press conference.

Griffin was unable to give any examples of transgender girls joining girls sports teams in Arkansas at Tuesday’s press conference, but he said there was “no obligation to sit around and wait until the examples pile up.”

The odds of those examples piling up are slim, said Tien Estell, a policy director for Intransitive, an organization that aims to advance protections for trans Arkansans.

“We’re in contact with a lot of trans youth,” Estell said. “And a few of them, yeah, they want to be on the sports team — but most of them are just worried about not being bullied at school. … Their primary concern is ‘Am I going to end up like Nex Benedict?’”

The lawsuit filed Tuesday is “ridiculous, nonsensical, unnecessary and hateful,” Estell said. Instead of focusing on food insecurity, the housing crisis, lack of access to health care and other “real issues faced by Arksnans,” Estelle said, the target is again on transgender students.

Arkansas has specific gender-related laws, including the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act that requires schools that designate sports teams to do so on the basis of sex — male, female or co-ed. The Given Name Act prohibits public school employees from being required to use someone’s preferred pronouns or name.

Sanders has also signed executive orders banning gender-neutral language in state government documents.

The lawsuit and executive order are only the latest in a series of barriers put before the transgender community in Arkansas, Estell said.

“Refusing to obey federal laws that protect marginalized students is beyond grotesque,” Estell said. “And also though, it’s right on point for Sanders and her administration. She built her career on a platform of hatred and consistently, consistently proves that she only cares about Arkansans who look and behave and think like her.”

Nebraska AG Hilgers: Title IX has long protected women

Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers said Tuesday that Title IX has long protected women from harassment and created opportunities for female athletes.

However, Biden and the executive branch “are now radically interpreting Title IX and recasting it as a rule about gender identity,” a news release from Hilgers’ office states.

“Unfortunately, the Biden Administration thinks it can take away privacy and opportunities from women,” Hilgers said in a statement. “We are proud to stand with our sister states in filing this suit to stop the Administration’s unlawful rewriting of Title IX, which will only serve to harm women and weaken the rule of law.”

The ACLU of Nebraska, commenting on X, formerly Twitter, criticized Hilgers for joining the lawsuit, stating he should be serving all Nebraskans but is opposing protections for LGBTQ students.

“Officials should be working to support these youth, not looking for ways to single them out or tell them they don’t belong,” the organization wrote.

— Nebraska Examiner reporter Zach Wendling 

This article first appeared in the Arkansas Advocate, a sister site of the Nebraska Examiner in the States Newsroom network.

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