The Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City heard a case Wednesday which could have far-reaching implications for the future of public accommodations for transgender people.

Missouri Supreme Court – Image courtesy of Missouri Courts

The term “first impression”, which refers to the first time a specific question has come before a specific court, was used in oral arguments.

The proceedings involve the use of bathrooms and locker rooms at a Kansas City area school district.  A student referred to as RMA in court documents and before the bench was born in 2000 and began transitioning to become a male in 2009 with a legal name change to a male sounding name the following year.

The state issued him a new birth certificate in accordance with a court order in 2014, recognizing his change of name and gender.

The Blue Springs School District near Kansas City subsequently allowed RMA to participate as a boy in segregated physical education and permitted him to join the football and track teams.

But the district declined to allow him to use the boys’ bathrooms and locker rooms, in middle or high school, because he has female genitalia.

Appellant attorneys for RMA point out this denial caused him emotional distress from being singled out for different and inferior access to the public accommodations provided by the school district to all other boys.

RMA filed a suit in Judicial Court in Independence in 2014, but the case was dismissed in favor of the school district.  RMA then filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights alleging sex discrimination by the district in October 2014 and was issued a right to sue letter by the Commission the next year.

He took his case to court again, stating that as a transgender male, he “was discriminated against in his use of a public accommodation on the grounds of his sex.”

This time, the Jackson County Circuit Court in Kansas City dismissed RMA’s claim as did the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District in Kansas City.

The court renderings actually didn’t specify a  reason for dismissal.

The Supreme Court in Jefferson City accepted RMA’s request to transfer the case and heard arguments Wednesday.  Before the high bench, the school district relied heavily on positions it took in its original motion to dismiss, stating that RMA failed to state a claim for two reasons.

First, the district argues the public accommodations section of the Missouri Human Rights Act doesn’t apply to entities such as the Blue Springs School District.  Second, it claims the act’s prohibition against sex discrimination doesn’t extend to sexual identity or transgender status.

In documents filed for the Supreme Court, the school district says the bench will be called on to determine the meaning of the Missouri Human Rights Act but cautions that judges should reflect legislative intent rather than any preferred policy they might have.

It says the case demands the Court determine what the Missouri legislature meant when it defined the word “person” in the Human Rights Act and what it meant when it included the term “sex” as a characteristic protected from discrimination.

The school district argues that since 1986 when the Human Rights Act was enacted, “sex” was not thought to include gender identity or transgender status, but simply the two divisions of “male or female.”

It notes that the legislature last year rejected Democratic attempts to amend a discrimination bill to include gender identity protections.  (That bill which became law actually heightened requirements to sue for discrimination.)

The school district also disputes a claim by RMA that the term “person” within the public accommodations section of the Human Rights Act includes public entities such as it.

Although the definition of “person” includes “corporations”, the district contends the language refers to private businesses, not public corporations as RMA claims.  Under RMA’s interpretation, the district would qualify as a person.

Attorney Mark Katz, who argued on behalf of the school district before the Missouri Supreme Court, stated its case in more plain terms.  He said the district is doing the appropriate thing because the boy still has female anatomy.

“This is not a sex discrimination case,” said Katz.  “This is someone who is being treated the way he’s being treated because of his gender identity and because his genitals are not going to work out in the bathroom.  And that’s what it is.”

The appellant attorneys representing RMA rely on the argument that sex discrimination in public accommodation under the Human Rights Act includes discrimination based on gender-related traits.

RMA contends it’s well-established that discrimination because of “sex” includes discrimination because of “gender,” as courts use the two terms interchangeably.

Attorney Alexander Edelman, who represented RMA before the Supreme Court, says RMA is a victim of sex discrimination, even if he’s also the victim of gender identity discrimination.  Edelman uses pregnancy as an analogy.

“Missouri courts have recognized, over and over again, that you can use this term pregnancy discrimination, but it’s still sex discrimination because pregnancy is a gender-related trait,” said Edelson.  “Therefore, the imposition of another category doesn’t take out what is otherwise sex discrimination from being sex discrimination.”

RMA’s attorneys further claim it’s well-settled law that a plaintiff may state an actionable claim under the Human Rights Act by alleging that a “gender-related trait was a factor” in the discriminatory act against the plaintiff. They say because RMA alleges discrimination based on sex, the trial court should not have dismissed the case.

Attorneys for RMA also note that federal courts have begun to recognize that discrimination, like he’s faced, is “discrimination because of sex.”

In court documents, they bring up a case where a court made an analogy in the context of religious discrimination.  “Imagine that an employee is fired because she converts from Christianity to Judaism…Discrimination because of religion easily encompasses discrimination because of a change of religion.”

Edelman told the judges Wednesday that there are six U.S. courts that have now rendered favorable decisions to transgender people and noted the state high bench has typically followed federal example.

“In interpreting the Missouri Human Rights Act this court has consistently said that it will follow federal precedent unless it’s inconsistent with the Missouri Human Rights Act”, Edelman said.  “Nothing in the Missouri Human Rights Act is inconsistent with these rulings.”

Attorneys for the school district counter this argument by stating that “the evolution of cases in other jurisdictions should not overrule the intent of the legislature”.

The school district claims several groups that have filed briefs in the case would improperly prefer the court see the case in the broad sense of societal change.

In a show of how widespread interest is in the case, six legal documents have been filed by groups in favor of granting RMA’s request to use boy’s bathrooms and locker rooms.  They include submissions from the ACLU, Transgender Law Center, American Medical Association Lambda Legal, GLAD, Women’s Law Center and the Missouri based organization PROMO.  In two cases, groups joined together to file documents.

The American Civil Liberty Union and the Transgender Law Center submitted a friend of the court document together.

They argue that federal courts recognize that discrimination because a person is transgender constitutes sex discrimination.  The groups contend RMA has stated a claim for sex discrimination even under a narrow interpretation of the term and assert that transgender discrimination causes the type of harm the state Human Rights Act is meant to prevent.

Medical organizations including the American Medical Association also submitted a document in support of RMA, claiming that excluding transgender individuals from facilities consistent with their gender identity endangers their health, wellbeing, and safety.

The state and the Alliance Defending Freedom filed documents supporting the school district.  The state argues the Missouri Human Rights Act’s ban on restrictions to public accommodation applies only to “persons,” which it contends is defined to exclude the government.  According to the state’s argument, the government is only prohibited from sex discrimination in its role as an employer, not in other capacities.

The Alliance Defending Freedom argues “sex” should be defined by human reproductive capabilities. It contends the differences between male and female calls for privacy protections in restrooms and locker rooms.

After hearing arguments Wednesday, the Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision in the case in the next six to eight weeks.