The U.S. federal government has removed earlier guidelines that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice.
A joint letter was issued Wednesday to the nation's schools by the departments of Justice and Education about the issue under the administration of President Donald Trump. It said guidelines issued last year by President Barack Obama's administration had led to "significant litigation."
The Obama guidelines were based on law known as Title IX (Title Nine), which argues that preventing sex discrimination in education extends to issues around gender identity.
Wednesday's letter reversed the Obama guidelines, saying states and local education departments should make that decision.
"Congress, state legislatures and local governments are in a position to adopt appropriate policies or laws addressing this issue," said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Both Sesssions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said protections against "discrimination, bullying and harassment" remain important. The joint letter from Justice and Education said schools must ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students can "learn and thrive in a safe environment."
The bathroom debate started in North Carolina in February 2016 when the city of Charlotte passed a local ordinance allowing for transgenders to use the bathroom of their choice, reported the Washington Post. In March 2016, the state legislature passed a law that overturned the Charlotte ordinance and required transgenders to use the bathroom of the gender on their birth certificate.
The Obama administration released its guidelines in May 2016 as a civil rights issue to protect transgenders from violence in bathrooms and locker rooms. Eleven states filed suit against the Obama administration over the guidelines in May 2016.
A federal judge had put the Obama directive on hold after opponents objected to the guidelines as federal overreach, and said they violated the privacy, safety and rights of other students.
But supporters of transgenders have been vocal in their opposition to the lawmakers who passed bathroom bills. Apple, whose CEO Tim Cook is gay, said: "We support efforts toward greater acceptance, not less, and we strongly believe that transgender students should be treated as equals. We disagree with any effort to limit or rescind their rights and protections." Google issued a similar statement, according to ReCode.net.
Advocates for transgender rights continue to fight, saying the guidelines are important.
"Transgender students thrive when treated equally, but too often they are not," said Mara Keisling, executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality. "With a pen stroke, the Trump administration effectively sanctions the bullying, ostracizing and isolation of these children, putting their very lives in danger."
The issue will go before the U.S. Supreme Court next month with the case of a teenager whose school district in the state of Virginia adopted a policy that prohibited him from using the men's restroom. The American Civil Liberties Union brought the case on behalf of Gavin Grimm, who was born female and identifies as male.
James Esseks, the ACLU's LGBT project director, said Wednesday's move shows that promises from President Trump to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights were "empty rhetoric."
"But the bottom line is that this does not undo legal protections for trans students, and school districts can and must continue to protect them and all students from discrimination. School districts that recognize that should continue doing the right thing; for the rest, we'll see them in court," Esseks said.
This story first appeared on VOANews.com.
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