September 8, 2016 at 12:44 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Prince William schools nondiscrimination proposal sparks debate

Muriel Bowser, gay news, Washington Blade

The Prince William County School Board on Sept. 7, 2016, held a public hearing on whether to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the district’s nondiscrimination policy. (Photo via Bigstock)

The Prince William County School Board on Wednesday held a public hearing on a proposal that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the district’s nondiscrimination policy.

Danica Roem, a transgender woman who lives in Manassas in Prince William County, was among the dozens of supporters who testified.

“It’s not a political agenda to protect everyone who uses the restroom, regardless of gender identity,” she said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

“Please understand transgender girls are girls and they’re students at Prince William County schools,” added Roem. “Transgender boys are boys and they’re also students at Prince William County schools.”

David Dooley, a gay U.S. Army veteran with two children who attended Prince William County public schools, told board members he served under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He described the proposal as a “long awaited step for equality.”

“LGBT students and their straight students and allies should not have to live in fear,” said Dooley.

Don Shaw, who told board members that his son and brother were bullied because of their sexual orientation, said LGBT students are four times more likely to take their own lives than their heterosexual peers. Chris McClure, a professional counselor whose son just began his freshman year at Battlefield High School in Haymarket, echoed this point.

“This just isn’t a matter of educational success,” she said. “For some students it’s a matter of life and death.”

Marshall: Board has no legal authority to amend policy

The Albemarle, Arlington and Fairfax County School Districts specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity in their nondiscrimination policies. The cities of Alexandria, Virginia Beach, Charlottesville and Richmond have also implemented these measures in their schools.

Opponents contend Virginia law — and specifically the Dillon Rule — prohibits the Prince William County School Board and other school boards from adding sexual orientation and gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy unless the General Assembly were to pass a statute allowing them to do so.

Virginia’s statewide nondiscrimination law does not include sexual orientation or gender identity.

Attorney General Mark Herring wrote in an opinion he released in March 2015 that state law does allow school boards to add sexual orientation and gender identity to their nondiscrimination. State Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William County)’s bill that would have prevented municipalities from enacting anti-LGBT discrimination measures did not make it out of the Virginia House of Delegates General Laws Committee earlier this year.

Marshall specifically criticized Herring on Wednesday as he spoke against the Prince William County proposal.

“When a boy thinks he’s a girl or vice versa, there’s some recognition of a fixed meaning to the terms male and female,” said Marshall. “Denying reality is something that we should not encourage our students to do. Persons who experience gender confusion will not benefit from this policy.”

J. Caleb Dalton of the Alliance Defending Freedom, who described himself as a civil rights attorney, told board members the district could face legal liability if they approved the proposal. He also said he represents a woman who alleges a man sexually abused three of her adopted children.

“They’ve been told they have to use not just restrooms, but locker rooms and showers with an individual who they don’t care what his sexual orientation is, but who has male genitalia, what they use and what they were assaulted,” said Dalton. “They see that as an instrument of assault, regardless of that person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Josh Hetzler of the Family Foundation of Virginia and Traditional Values Coalition President Andrea Lafferty are among those who also spoke against the proposal.

No ‘pressing need’ to get ‘in front of courts’

The hearing took place against the backdrop of the debate in Virginia and around the county around whether trans people have the right to use restrooms that are consistent with their gender identity.

The Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit against North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which prohibits trans people from using public restrooms that are consistent with their gender identity and bans local municipalities from enacting LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination measures.

Gavin Grimm, a senior at Gloucester County High School, alleges in a federal lawsuit he filed against the Gloucester County School District in 2015 that its policy prohibiting him from using the boys restroom or locker room because they are not consistent with his “biological gender” is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. He also contends the regulation violates Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibits schools receiving federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex.

The Justice Department and the Department of Education’s Office of the General Council filed briefs in support of Grimm. The Gloucester County School District formally asked the U.S. Supreme Court last month to hear his case.

The Obama administration told public schools in May that Title IX requires them to allow trans students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor issued a preliminary injunction against the guidance last month in response to a lawsuit that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed on behalf of a dozen states and two school districts.

The Liberty Counsel asked the Virginia Supreme Court last week to consider its lawsuit against the Fairfax County School District’s nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

Lafferty is among the plaintiffs in the case.

“There is no pressing need right now to get out in front of the courts,” Bob Watson told the Prince William County School Board as he spoke against the proposal to expand the district’s nondiscrimination policy. “A measured and deliberate approach to the transgender issue will, in the long run, deliver the best results for everyone concerned.”

The board is expected to vote on the proposal on Sept. 21.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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