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Louisiana sues to block new Title IX rules, leaving LGBTQ students in limbo

Jude Armstrong and fellow Benjamin Franklin High School students protest bills targeting LGBTQ people by performing a play on the steps of the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge, La. on March 27, 2024.
Gerald Herbert
Jude Armstrong and fellow Benjamin Franklin High School students protest bills targeting LGBTQ people by performing a play on the steps of the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge, La. on March 27, 2024.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students’ rights are at the center of another clash between Gov. Jeff Landry’s administration and President Biden.

Louisiana is one of at least 15 Republican-led states suing the Biden administration to block recent changes to Title IX from taking effect in August. The 1972 law prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded education programs — and new rules released last month explicitly protect the rights of LGBTQ students.

The changes make clear that sex-based discrimination includes behavior or policies that target students based on “sex stereotypes, sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics,' according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The guidance also adds protections for students who are pregnant and changes the way schools can respond to allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, reinstating some rollbacks made under the Trump administration.

Clear federal protections for gay and transgender students crash headlong into Louisiana’s own laws and several bills expected to pass the Legislature this session.

For example, under the new regulations, it could be a violation of Title IX if schools refuse to use pronouns that correspond with a student’s gender identity. Louisiana lawmakers are attempting to pass a law that would run afoul of that rule.

A bill in the Legislature requires teachers to use a student’s name and pronouns that align with their assigned sex at birth unless they have their parent’s permission. Even then, teachers could still refuse if it conflicts with their religious or moral beliefs.

Louisiana’s superintendent of education, Cade Brumley, told school district leaders in a letter to disregard the federal guidance and wait for legal challenges to make their way through the courts.

“Do not comply with these radical rules from the Biden administration,” Brumley reiterated at a press conference announcing the suit.

If the changes to Title IX stand and schools violate them, they risk losing federal dollars, which are districts’ largest source of funding by far.

Louisiana pushes back

Late last month, Louisiana’s attorney general Liz Murrill announced she had joined with top prosecutors in Idaho, Mississippi and Montana to sue the Biden Administration to stop the new rules from taking effect on August 1.

Murrill called extending protection to LGBTQ kids, “an affront to the dignity of families and school administrators everywhere” and argued it's not legal.

She also said the change “guts” Title IX, arguing that by adding protections for transgender women, biological women are no longer protected.

“This is federal government overreach, but it's of a degree and a dimension like no other,” Murrill said.

Murrill mainly talked about the guidance in the context of athletics, something the new rules technically don’t cover. The Biden administration is working on separate rules just for that.

Federal officials are considering a policy that would make it illegal for schools to broadly ban transgender students from sports teams that align with their gender identity. If that rule is ultimately approved, it would clash with bans that Louisiana has already embedded in state law.

But officials with the U.S. Department of Education said it will still give schools flexibility to ban transgender athletes depending on age and sport. The final rules are still in the works and there isn’t a clear timeline for when they might be rolled out.

Seventeen of the state’s 70 school districts, including St. Tammany Parish had signed on to Louisiana’s lawsuit as of early May. Rapides Parish Public Schools has filed its own suit.

Protecting LGBTQ students

The directive from the federal government to protect LGBTQ students is a direct attempt to counteract the kind of laws Louisiana and other Republican-led states have passed or are trying to pass.

In addition to the state’s pronoun bill, lawmakers are advancing a bathroom bill and one that would forbid teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity — including their own — during class or extracurricular activities.

Gov. Jeff Landry is expected to sign the bills into law, versions of which passed in prior years but were vetoed by Landry’s predecessor, John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

LGBTQ advocates and legal experts said gay and transgender students in Louisiana aren’t currently protected, pointing to hostile policies and the state — and previously federal — government’s unwillingness to apply existing law.

Nicholas Hite is a civil rights attorney with Lambda Legal who works with LGBTQ families across Louisiana. He points to Louisiana’s “relatively robust” anti-bullying laws for K-12 students, “that simply are not used to protect LGBTQ students.”

“The result is that LGBTQ students face relentless harassment and discrimination from fellow students, school officials, and now legislators and conservative private interest groups,” Hite said in an email.

Mel Manuel is a former teacher who spent a decade working in Louisiana public schools and the co-founder of the group Queer Northshore. They said they know families that have had no choice but to pull their child out of school due to harassment.

“In general, LGBTQ students, especially transgender students, do not feel safe in Louisiana public schools,” Manuel said. “A lot of that has to do with the fact that they may have teachers who are LGBTQ, but teachers don’t feel safe.”

Manuel is worried the bill in Louisiana’s legislature that forbids teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity would mean the end of gay-straight alliances at schools. They used to run one and said it was a lifeline for students.

They also pushed back on the argument Republicans often make that the laws they’re passing are about protecting children.

“I want to protect the LGBTQ children,” they said. “These are also children who need protection.”

Hite said Title IX, since its creation in the 1970s, could always be applied to LGBTQ students.

“The new guidance simply makes that right explicitly clear and serves to put action behind the words of that promise,” he said.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.