COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Parents and students backed by a national legal group are challenging an Ohio school district in federal court for allowing transgender students to use communal restrooms consistent with their gender identity. 

American First Legal is suing Dayton-area Bethel Local School District, alleging school officials violated the religious liberty of 18 anonymous parents and students when a 14-year-old transgender student was permitted to use the girls’ restrooms. Founded by a former aide to President Donald Trump, American First Legal has filed lawsuits nationwide against immigration policies, race discrimination, and LGBTQ+ rights. 

The November filing argues that restrooms and other intimate facilities should only be shared by persons of the same biological sex “for a variety of reasons, including safety, privacy, modesty, religion and historical views of sex.” However, a study from the UCLA School of Law found no evidence that allowing trans people to use public facilities that align with their gender identity increases safety risks.

In a Jan. 9 filing, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio asked the court to join the case to represent the trans student, who is not a defendant in the suit. The ACLU said Bethel’s current policy is “appropriate and should not be disturbed by court order.” 

“The missing character in the story, the voice that was not represented in the lawsuit, was that of the transgender student who would be directly impacted by this,” said David Carey, deputy legal director at the ACLU of Ohio. 

‘Students would shout transphobic remarks’

The 14-year-old student joined Bethel Middle School in January 2020 after enduring bullying and harassment for being transgender at her previous school district in Fairborn, according to court documents. Before stepping foot on campus, the student’s family said they informed the school’s administration that she was transgender and opted for single-occupancy restrooms for her safety.

Problems began when the student realized only two of the five single-occupancy restrooms on campus were accessible and caused her to be tardy to class. Using these restrooms also singled her out as transgender.  

“I started noticing that other students would taunt and harass me for using the ‘sissy bathroom,'” the student wrote in the ACLU’s filing. “Some of the other students would shout transphobic remarks or slurs, refuse to use my preferred pronouns, or ask inappropriate and invasive questions about my body.” 

She started holding in her urine and avoided drinking while at school, the filing states. Not using the restroom began negatively affecting her school performance and physical health. During this time, the student had two urinary tract infections and said she felt dehydrated.

A policy change ‘in secret’

After nearly a year of attending Bethel, the student and her mom asked school administrators if she could begin using the girls’ restroom. Court documents state the middle school’s principal told the student in December 2021 that she could start using the girl’s bathroom after winter break. 

However, American First Legal writes in the complaint that Bethel’s Board of Education made this change “in secret to avoid community opposition” and announced the new policy at a meeting in January 2022 without public discussion, deliberation, or voting. 

The 18 anonymous plaintiffs argue that the new policy violates an Ohio act requiring bodies to conduct official business in public, violates a parent’s right to direct the upbringing of their children, and discriminates against Bethel’s Christian and Muslim students. 

Bethel students against the policy “hold their urine and avoid using the restroom at school if at all possible” out of fear “that they will be exposed to the opposite sex,” the document states. The complaint also said forcing Muslim students “to use intimate facilities with members of the opposite biological sex is like forcing them to eat pork.”

“The board is imposing a substantial burden on the free exercise of that faith by placing the children in intimate facilities with members of the opposite biological sex,” the complaint states. “Among other things, this directly contradicts their faith on a fundamental moral question and places their children in a situation of compromised modesty.” 

The school district said it would not comment on pending litigation after NBC4 requested a statement. According to the ACLU, school officials have allowed all students to use the single-occupancy bathrooms if they feel uncomfortable using the communal restrooms. 

An ‘equitable’ agreement 

Access to the girl’s restroom has been “a turning point” for the now-high school student, who wrote that her grades have improved and she no longer feels like an outcast. She said it would be unfair to her physical health and limit her educational opportunities if she was banned from using the girls’ bathroom. 

“I would feel sad that I am being treated like a danger or an outcast, when I have never caused harm to anyone,” she wrote. “It would be especially sad, given how much harassment and even violence I’ve suffered at the hands of classmates because I am transgender.”

Studies show LGBTQ+ youth have difficulty finding acceptance at school and home. Only 55% of LGBTQ+ youth said their school is affirming, and only 37% said their home is affirming, according to The Trevor Project. The research consistently finds that LGBTQ+ young people report lower rates of attempting suicide when they have access to safe spaces. 

The court ordered the plaintiffs and the defendants to respond to the ACLU’s request to join the lawsuit by Thursday, with the next court hearing scheduled for Feb. 7. Carey said the ACLU is focusing on reaching an equitable agreement for everyone. 

“We’re not in this to denigrate anyone’s religious beliefs or to call them into question,” Carey said. “But the religious beliefs of one student do not provide a basis to dictate to another student where they can use the restroom.” 

View the ACLU’s motion to intervene below.