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Maine Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Transgender Student
01/30/2014   Reported By: Susan Sharon

In what's being called a landmark ruling, the Maine Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a transgender student who sued her former school district over access to the bathroom of her choice. An attorney for the school district says there will not be an appeal. And as Susan Sharon reports, civil rights groups are celebrating what they see as a clear direction for anti-discrimination policies.

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Nicole Maines was a fifth-grade student at an Orono elementary school when she was thrust into the national spotlight over gender identity and access to public accommodations.

Biologically, Maines was born a boy, but from a very early age she identified as a girl. So, when school officials forbade her to use the girls' bathroom after another student complained, Maines and her family filed suit in 2009 alleging unlawful discrimination. They were backed by the Maine Human Rights Commission and the ACLU.

Wayne Maines is Nicole's dad. He says he broke down when he got the news that a lower court ruling had been reversed and that they'd won the case.

"It's been five years. But this time it's happy tears, you know?" he says. "I'm so proud of my children and my wife and our state for supporting this and doing the right thing. It's just amazing!"

In it's 5-1 ruling, the Court found that "it has been clearly established that a student's psychological well-being and educational success depend upon being permitted to use the communal bathroom consistent with her gender identity."
Writing for the majority, Justice Warren Silver said "denying access to the appropriate bathroom constitutes sexual orientation discrimination" in violation of the Maine Human Rights Act."

But the Court also recognized that the Orono school district was working in "unchartered territory" when it grappled with Nicole Maines' situation. And Chief Justice Leigh Saufley made a point of writing that the district "undertook a rational, compassionate approach to the challenges presented to it" by allowing Maines to use a single-stall, staff bathroom instead. Melissa Hewey, an attorney for the school district, says she's gratified by that finding.

"That said, the court has now made clear what schools should do in an area that is becoming more and more frequently questioned," Hewey says. "So, I think getting clarity is a good thing. There's no doubt from my client's standpoint that they're going to do everything they need to do to comply with the law, and we'll all move forward."

The lone dissenter on the panel, Justice Andrew Mead, is troubled by the fact that discrimination is also prohibited on the basis of sex. In other words, it could be argued that if a man wanted to use a women's bathroom at a restaurant, it would be illegal discrimination for the restaurant to prevent him from doing so.

Both Mead and Saufley said it would benefit the public for the Legislature to act quickly to address this concern. Jennifer Levy, an attorney for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and for Nicole Maines says whatever happens, the Court's ruling has solidified the direction of public policy around this issue.

"I think that what we've seen is a huge transition since this case started," Levy says. "There are many human rights commissions now across the country who have agreed with this interpretation of the non-discrimination law. We have state policies and local school policies that have confirmed this as the correct approach, and so I think this is absolutely the direction of the future."

In a written statement, the ACLU of Maine called the ruling a "victory for the privacy and dignity of transgender students." And Levy credits Nicole Maines, now a happy teenager in another school, with having the courage to stand up for her rights.


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