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Bathroom Business

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Posted in:  
June 1, 2016

Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and Department of Justice (DOJ), coupled with strong support from President Obama, with respect to the rights of transgendered students in public schools, has sparked a political firestorm. Oklahoma lawmakers not pleased with the guidance responded with their own piece of legislation designed to counteract its effect—the “bathroom bill." And, as is frequently the case, schools are caught in the middle.

Senate Bill 1619, mercifully, is dead. No matter your politics on the transgender issue, it is important to realize the potential negative implications that could’ve resulted if the bill had passed. 

The general description of the bill appeared to some to be a workable compromise: If a student or student’s parents have a religious objection to the student sharing a restroom or locker room with a transgendered student whose biological gender is opposite that of the student, then the school must make an accommodation for the student with the religious objection.

It’s what came next, however, that was problematic. The bill stated further that providing a single-occupancy restroom, changing room or shower is not acceptable as a religious accommodation. So schools without large multi-stall/multi-dressing room facilities would have been forced to make a choice—discriminate against the transgender student by not allowing the student to use a public (i.e., multi-stall) bathroom, or on the other hand fail to accommodate the student with the religious objection by not providing that person a public bathroom that is not being used by anyone transgendered. Either choice violates law and someone’s rights. Either choice could’ve resulted in lawsuits and/or loss of precious funds.

In other bathroom business, government officials from eleven states—including Oklahoma—have now filed suit in federal court challenging the OCR/DOJ guidance on school accommodation of transgendered students. The lawsuit maintains that the guidance “has no basis in law” and could cause “seismic changes in the operations of the nation’s school districts.”

About the Author

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Terri Thomas

Director of Legal Services

Terri Thomas serves as Director of Legal Services for OPSRC.  Ms. Thomas is an attorney practicing exclusively in the area of Oklahoma school law, with a primary focus on rural and smaller school districts. Prior to OPSRC, she served as legal counsel for the Organization of Rural Oklahoma Schools (OROS) from 1999 to 2015 and represents many school districts throughout all parts of the state.

It’s no accident that Terri wound up practicing school law.  She grew up in the school business. Terri’s father, the late Howard Thomas, was a school superintendent for 25 years in several Oklahoma school districts, including Pauls Valley—Terri’s hometown—and Ardmore. After graduating from Pauls Valley High School, Terri received her bachelor’s degree in Finance from Southern Methodist University and her Juris Doctor from the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

She and her husband, Norman Thompson, and their 8-year old daughter, Mary, reside in Oklahoma City.

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