News Law and Policy

Michigan High School Protects Student Athlete at Expense of Alleged Sexual Assault Victim

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A lawsuit filed last week by the National Women's Law Center suggests high school administrators have a long way to go in protecting students from sexual assaults.

Last week the National Women’s Law Center, along with a local law firm in Michigan, filed a complaint in federal district court on behalf of a high school student who was allegedly sexually assaulted at school by a fellow student and star basketball player. In many ways the story echoes the tragic high school rape story from Steubenville, Ohio, which should lead all of us to ask just what kind of culture are we raising our children in, and what kind of culture is being cultivated at our high schools?

According to the complaint, in 2010 the victim was sexually assaulted by a star player on the school’s basketball team. The assault took place on campus in a sound proof band room at Forest Hills Central High School. The victim notified a teacher who in turn reported the assault to the principal. But rather than open an investigation into the allegations, the principal discouraged the student and her parents from filing charges, telling them that doing so could ruin the assailant’s prospects at being recruited to play basketball for a Division 1 school.

The victim and her parents ignored the principal’s request not to file charges because they were concerned that this student might attack other girls. Instead, the student and her parents filed a police report, and the Kent County Sheriff’s Department began a criminal investigation. Meanwhile, the school did nothing.

As alleged in the complaint, two weeks later another female student was sexually assaulted by the same attacker. Despite a legal obligation under Title IX to investigate the assault and protect the student, the high school officials never interviewed the girl or her parents again, failed to conduct an investigation, and for two and a half weeks left the attacker in one of her classes.

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It gets worse. As word of the sexual assault spread among the student body, the female victim became the target of an intensive cyber-bullying and harassment campaign—both at school and online—that depicted her as a liar and a “whore” who was trying to bring down an innocent athlete. These cyber-attacks were only reinforced by the fact that the school continued to take no action to reprimand the male student. Not only did fellow students harass the victim, the attacker and his friends verbally and physically harassed the girl as well. They followed her around as she moved in and out of classrooms, through hallways, and around the school campus. The attacker sometimes pushed her into other students as she walked down the hallway, causing her to slam into lockers. Despite repeated efforts by the victim’s parents and other students to alert the principal and the school’s Title IX Coordinator about the viciousness of the harassment by the attacker and other students, school administrators took no action.

Thankfully law enforcement did. Five weeks after the sexual assault, the Kent County Prosecutor’s office authorized two felony counts of criminal sexual conduct against the attacker for his assaults on NWLC’s client and the second female victim at the school. The attacker later pled guilty to a single count of misdemeanor assault and battery. He was sentenced to attend Kent County’s Adolescent Sexual Offender Treatment Program for a second time. The only sanction the school imposed upon the student assailant was to temporarily bench him on the basketball court.

“Title IX requires schools to ensure that the educational environment is free from sex-based discrimination,” said NWLC Vice-President of Education and Employment Fatima Goss Graves said in a statement.

“This school completely ignored its legal responsibility to address student-on-student sexual harassment and failed to take reasonable steps to protect the victim. The school’s failure to address the harassment sends a chilling message to students that they should remain silent in the face of sexual assault and cannot count on their school to provide a safe learning environment.”

Because of the school district’s inaction, the victim’s grades suffered, she quit the soccer team and cheerleading squad, became isolated from her classmates, and ended up transferring to a new school. And while the lawsuit may vindicate her rights, it does little to undo the message the school district sent to other students, which is that if a student dares to speak out against sexual violence they will be ridiculed and left unprotected. Students not only deserve to feel safe in their school environments, according to Title IX they have a right to be safe in them as well. Unfortunately for students at Forest Hills Central High School, their administration doesn’t seem to understand that duty trumps potential college athletic recruitment.

Analysis Politics

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s Record on Women’s Health at Center of Heated Race

Ally Boguhn

Sen. Kelly Ayotte's defenders have made claims about her commitment to "strengthening women's health" through action on various measures; reproductive rights advocates point out, however, that most of these measures would have done more harm than good.

The tight race between incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) could help determine which party takes control of the U.S. Senate after the November elections. In recent months, a key point of contention has emerged among Ayotte’s supporters and critics: the senator’s record on reproductive rights and women’s health.

Planned Parenthood Votes released an ad in April claiming Ayotte is “bad for New Hampshire women,” signaling the continuation of the heated narrative in the lead-up to the election. Ayotte’s defenders have responded to the accusations with claims of her commitment to “strengthening women’s health” through action on various measures; reproductive rights advocates point out, however, that most of these measures would have done more harm than good.

“For months, Senator Kelly Ayotte has followed party bosses, refusing to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. And for years, Ayotte has waited for an opportunity to push for someone to end access to safe, legal abortion and overturn Roe v. Wade,” claims the Planned Parenthood Votes ad, before playing an August 2010 clip of Ayotte advocating for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. “For New Hampshire women, the consequences of letting Kelly Ayotte play politics with the Constitution could last a lifetime.”

The $400,000 ad buy, slated to run on broadcast and cable in New Hampshire, has been Planned Parenthood Votes’ first on-air ad targeting a Senate race in the 2016 election cycle. The organization, a national independent expenditure political committee, is criticizing Ayotte for claiming to protect women but failing to protect reproductive rights, also drawing on her pledge to obstruct filling the vacant Supreme Court seat in the aftermath of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

“Kelly Ayotte may try to paint herself as pro-woman, but her record tells a very different story. Every chance she’s gotten she’s voted to ‘defund’ Planned Parenthood and cut women off from essential health care like birth control and breast and cervical cancer screenings,” said Deirdre Schifeling, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, in a statement on the organization’s new ad. “She has been advocating for years to ban women’s access to safe, legal abortion, and it’s clear she now sees her chance in the Supreme Court process. Kelly Ayotte is refusing to do her job, and abdicating her constitutional duty, in order to push an extreme agenda that no one in New Hampshire wants.”

Ayotte’s campaign manager, Jon Kohan, meanwhile, defended the senator’s record on women’s health and rights in a press release. He wrote, “Kelly’s long record of standing up for New Hampshire women and families is clear, and she cares deeply about ensuring all women have access to health services.” The release included a bulleted list providing examples of Ayotte’s work “strengthening women’s health care,” “supporting working women,” and “protecting domestic or sexual assault victims.”

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The claims may be familiar to those following the New Hampshire race. After Hassan announced her candidacy in October, for example, One Nation, an issue-advocacy organization that does not need to disclose where their funding comes from and is affiliated with Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC, pushed a 17-day, $1.4 million ad campaign touting Ayotte’s record on women’s health.

Hassan, on the other hand, has the support of organizations such as EMILY’s List, whose stated mission is to help elect pro-choice women into office. After endorsing the governor in the Senate race, the group added Ayotte to its “On Notice” list for “voting for anti-woman legislation and standing in the way of policies that give working families a fair shot.”

But with both sides of the race simultaneously claiming opposing positions on whether Ayotte has been good for women and reproductive rights, what is the truth?

Ayotte has made no secret of her desire to defund Planned Parenthood, and she “has shown support for defunding the organization or opposition to continued funding in at least six votes,” according to PolitiFact, though some of those votes were procedural. Though she famously chided Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for attempting to shut down the government over his crusade to strip the reproductive health provider of money in the wake of anti-choice front group Center for Medical Progress’ deceptively edited videos, it was because she didn’t view his methods as a winning strategy for accomplishing that goal—not because she didn’t believe in the cause.

In a letter to Cruz, Ayotte told the Republican presidential candidate that she too is “deeply disturbed by” CMP’s videos and doesn’t believe Planned Parenthood should have federal funding.”This callous disregard for the dignity of human life is heinous, and I do not believe taxpayer dollars should be used to fund a private organization that performs hundreds of thousands of abortions each year and harvests the body parts of unborn children,” wrote Ayotte. She went on to ask what Cruz’s “strategy to succeed in actually defunding Planned Parenthood” really was, given that their mutual efforts to redirect the organization’s funding to other clinics had failed.

Planned Parenthood does not use its federal funding to provide abortions; its fetal tissue donation program has been cleared of wrongdoing in multiple state and federal investigations. And despite claims from conservatives, including Ayotte, that other facilities could provide Planned Parenthood’s patients with health care should the organization lose funding, the Guttmacher Institute found that “credible evidence suggests this is unlikely. In some areas, Planned Parenthood is the sole safety-net provider of contraceptive care.”

“Our analysis shows unequivocally that Planned Parenthood plays a major role in delivering publicly supported contraceptive services and supplies to women who are in need of such care nationwide,” the Guttmacher Institute concluded.

Ayotte has also supported numerous other anti-choice restrictions and legislation, including a 2015 20-week abortion ban based on the medically unfounded claim that fetuses feel pain at this point in pregnancy.

According to NPR, Ayotte has “been a hero to anti-abortion activists since 2005, when as New Hampshire attorney general she defended a parental notification law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.” The law required doctors to notify parents of minors seeking an abortion at least 48 hours prior to the procedure, and contained no exceptions for the health of the patient. The Court ultimately ruled against Ayotte, affirming that states may not enact abortion laws that don’t protect women’s health and safety.

National Right to Life found that the New Hampshire senator voted “with” the anti-choice organization in all 14 of the scored votes from 2012 to 2015 it examined.

In 2012, Ayotte co-sponsored the failed “Blunt Amendment,” which would have allowed exemptions from the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit for any employers or insurers that had moral objections to providing contraceptive coverage to their employees. And in a 2014 commentary for the Wall Street Journal, Ayotte and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) defended the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which grants some employers the right to deny contraceptive coverage to their staff based on the owner’s religious beliefs, falsely claiming that the ruling did “not take away women’s access to birth control.”

Ayotte’s campaign is quick to point to legislation sponsored by the senator that would have allowed over-the-counter contraception as proof that she cares about women’s health. Reproductive health advocates, however, called Ayotte’s Allowing Greater Access to Safe and Effective Contraception Act a “sham” when it was introduced in 2015. Though the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) generally supports over-the-counter birth control, the organization’s president Dr. Mark S. DeFrancesco, said in a statement that Ayotte’s measure “would actually make more women have to pay for their birth control, and for some women, the cost would be prohibitive.”

Paid leave is yet another issue in which Ayotte has put forth legislation in the name of helping women. Ayotte introduced the Family Friendly and Workplace Flexibility Act of 2015 in March of that year, claiming it would “allow greater flexibility for workers who are looking to better balance their work-life demands.” Analysis by ThinkProgress, however, found that the measure “could weaken already weak rules that require workers to be paid extra for working extra hours, thus ensuring that workweeks don’t grow out of control and employees are compensated fairly.”

Earlier in 2015, Ayotte signed on as a co-sponsor of the Working Families Flexibility Act. According to a statement from the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF) condemning the legislation, the act claimed to “give hourly workers more flexibility and time with their loved ones by allowing them to choose paid time off, rather than time-and-a-half wages, as compensation for working more than 40 hours in one week.” However, the bill did “not promote family friendly or flexible workplaces,” explained the nonprofit organization in a fact sheet. “Instead, it would erode hourly workers’ ability to make ends meet, plan for family time, and have predictability, stability, and true flexibility at work.”

Ayotte’s record on equal pay has been similarly debunked by advocates. One of the policies highlighted by Ayotte’s campaign in the wake of Planned Parenthood Votes’ ad was the senator’s introduction of the Gender Advancement In Pay (GAP) Act in September 2015, which she reintroduced ahead of Equal Pay Day this April. The measure was meant to make clear that “employers must pay men and women equal wages for equal work, without reducing the opportunity for employers to reward merit,” according to a press release from Ayotte’s office upon the initial release of the bill.

Critics argued that Ayotte’s bill was nothing other than an election-year stunt. New Hampshire state Sen. Donna Soucy (D-Manchester) told NH1 News that Ayotte’s move was an attempt to look “for some cover … in an effort to be more in line with” New Hampshire voters, after Ayotte voted against other fair pay measures. However, Soucy said, the legislation didn’t really address the issue of pay equity. “Sen. Ayotte’s bill attempts to create paycheck fairness but doesn’t in fact do so because employers could preclude their employees from discussing what they make with their fellow employees,” claimed Soucy.

Similar arguments were made when Ayotte co-sponsored another equal pay measure, the Workplace Advancement Act, with Sens. Deb Fischer (R-NE), Susan Collins (R-ME), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Thad Cochran (R-MS), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) in April 2015. Though the legislation would ban employers from retaliating against their staff, it failed to garner support from Democrats. According to the National Women’s Law Center, the bill would have done “more harm than good” as it “entirely [ignored] the many loopholes and inadequacies in current equal pay laws and simply [stated] that pay discrimination ‘violates existing law.'”

Their arguments are bolstered by Ayotte’s repeated votes against the federal Paycheck Fairness Act, though as Politifact again pointed out, some of these votes were procedural and not against the bill itself. Ayotte did cast one vote in favor of ending debate on the measure and advancing it; the fact-checking site noted, though, that Ayotte’s office reportedly did so in the ultimately denied hopes of changing the bill.

Had it passed, the legislation would have updated the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to include protections such as prohibiting retaliation against employees who share their salary and strengthening penalties for those who violate the law. Ayotte claims she voted against the measure because it “could reduce the ability of employers to award merit pay for good performance and limit the opportunity for women to have flexible work schedules,” according to a press release on the matter.

Speaking at a town hall event in 2013, Ayotte had previously justified her vote against equal pay legislation by asserting that it “created a lot of additional burdens that would … make it more difficult for job creators to create jobs.” The New Hampshire senator went on to add that there were already laws in place that could help address the issue.

There are, however, some examples of Ayotte supporting and introducing legislation that would help women. In June 2015, Ayotte co-sponsored the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to protect pregnant people from workplace discrimination. Though the legislation never came to a vote, it would have helped “end … discrimination and promote healthy pregnancies and the economic security of pregnant women and their families,” according to the NPWF. That same year, the New Hampshire senator co-sponsored the Protect Access to Lifesaving Screenings (PALS) Act, bipartisan legislation that would have safeguarded access to free annual mammograms for women ages 40 to 74. Ayotte co-sponsored the bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act in 2014 and 2015, which, according to Democratic New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s website, would “protect students and boost accountability and transparency at colleges and universities” when it comes to sexual assault. Ayotte also co-sponsored the Combating Military Sexual Assault Act of 2013 to address the issue in the military.

Overall, Ayotte has signed onto or supported numerous pieces of legislation that at face value seem to promote reproductive health and women’s rights. Further examination shows, however, that—with a few exceptions—they largely failed to hold up to scrutiny. While Ayotte’s campaign alleges that many of her measures would have helped women and families, analysis suggests that her conservative solutions to addressing these issues often would have made the problems worse. This, coupled with the senator’s fierce anti-choice advocacy, will no doubt keep this portion of Ayotte’s record under tight observation as November’s election approaches.

Analysis LGBTQ

North Carolina’s Governor Is Missing the Point in the Fight Over the State’s Anti-Trans Law

Imani Gandy

If history is any indication, North Carolina very well may find itself on the losing end of this fight.

In what promises to be one of the most closely watched legal showdowns of the year, North Carolina and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed dueling lawsuits against one another on Monday, each asking a federal court to determine the legality of the anti-trans bathroom discrimination provisions in the state’s recently enacted HB 2.

HB 2 is the grossly discriminatory law that overturns local anti-discrimination laws, bans cities or counties from setting a minimum wage for private employers, and mandates that access to restroom facilities in schools and publicly owned buildings be restricted to the gender on a person’s birth certificate. And even with the relative lack of legal precedent relating to trans people’s civil rights, if history is any indication, North Carolina very well may find itself on the losing end of this fight.

During a Monday press conference, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the DOJ would be filing a lawsuit seeking a permanent injunction to block the bathroom discrimination provision of HB 2 and accused North Carolina of creating “state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals, who simply seek to engage in the most private of functions in a place of safety and security—a right taken for granted by most of us.”

Speaking directly to the transgender community, Lynch said, “[N]o matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”

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The DOJ had previously given North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) the opportunity to avoid the expense and hassle of defending a lawsuit against the United States. Principal Deputy Assistant Vanita Gupta gave McCrory an ultimatum in a letter last week: Confirm that the state of North Carolina would not “comply with or implement” HB 2, or risk a civil rights lawsuit and a curtailment of the nearly $861 million in federal funds North Carolina receives annually. Gupta gave the state until this last Monday to think about it and to notify employees that, consistent with federal law, they are permitted access to bathrooms and other facilities that align with their gender identity.

McCrory responded by filing an utterly pointless lawsuit. North Carolina could have easily saved itself the cost of filing, told the DOJ that it would move ahead with HB 2, and just waited to be slapped with a lawsuit. The cases are going to be consolidated anyway. But wasting taxpayer dollars in the persistent effort to oppress marginalized people seems to be a favorite tactic among states with nothing better to do.

Instead of confirming that he would stop the campaign against trans people, McCrory sued the Obama administration in federal court in North Carolina for its “radical reinterpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which would prevent plaintiffs from protecting the bodily privacy rights of state employees while accommodating the needs of transgendered [sic] state employees.”

Title VII prohibits sex-based employment discrimination, among a number of other protections. According to the tortured analysis in McCrory’s complaint, the DOJ is “ignoring the bodily privacy” of state employees, particularly women and girls who, as a result of bathroom equality, could be vulnerable to assault by any sexual predator claiming to be a woman in order to gain easier access to their prey, despite the fact that there is not a single reported incident of a trans person assaulting anyone in a bathroom.

McCrory’s complaint cites a handful of cases out of the Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeal, all of which stand for the proposition that Title VII doesn’t protect transgender people as transgender people per se, and that it doesn’t protect people with “sexual identity disorders.” And besides, McCrory argues, even if transgender employees are covered by Title VII, the statute doesn’t prohibit employers from balancing special circumstances they pose with “the right to bodily privacy held by non-transgender employees in the workplace.”

Even setting aside McCrory’s problematic intimation that transgender employees don’t have the same “right to bodily privacy” that cisgender employees do, McCrory’s complaint misses the point.

The issue is not discrimination against transgender people for being transgender people, but rather, as the DOJ pointed out in its letter to Gov. McCrory, the issue is that discrimination against transgender people is discrimination based upon sex, and discrimination based on sex is a violation of Title VII.

Citing the landmark decision Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, in which the Supreme Court made it clear that discrimination on the basis of “sex” includes differential treatment based on any “sex-based consideration,” the DOJ noted that federal courts and administrative agencies have applied Title VII to discrimination against transgender individuals based on sex, including gender identity.

In Hopkins, plaintiff Ann Hopkins said she had been denied a promotion at work because she was “too macho.” Her employer told her that she should wear makeup, style her hair, and act more feminine. Six members of the Supreme Court agreed that such comments were indicative of gender discrimination, and held that Title VII barred discrimination because of biological sex, but also barred gender stereotyping—discrimination based on someone failing to act and appear according to expectations defined by gender.

It makes sense that the same principle would apply to transgender people. Ann Hopkins was treated differently at work because she expressed her gender in a manner that did not conform to arbitrary societal standards. Similarly, transgender people who are prohibited from using the bathroom that conforms to their identity are being treated differently than cisgender people, because transgender people, as far as some of the courts are concerned, are not expressing their gender in a manner that parts of society deem suitable.

As the 11th Circuit noted in the 2011 case Glenn v. Brumby, “[a] person is defined as transgender precisely because of the perception that his or her behavior transgresses gender stereotypes. The very acts that define transgender people as transgender are those that contradict stereotypes of gender-appropriate appearance and behavior.”

If cisgender people can use facilities for people who share the biological gender with which they identify, then it is discriminatory to deny transgender people that same personal dignity. Full stop.

McCrory doesn’t seem to understand this and is stuck on the notion of “biological sex”: In his complaint, he protests that “North Carolina does not treat transgender employees differently from non-transgender employees. All state employees are required to use the bathroom and changing facilities assigned to persons of their same biological sex, regardless of gender identity, or transgender status.”

One can imagine making the same argument with respect to, say, racially segregated bathrooms: “All state employees are required to use the bathroom and changing facilities assigned to persons of their same race.”

And one hopes McCrory would agree that such an argument would fall flat on its face.

Ultimately, the fight between the United States and North Carolina is about more than just bathrooms. It’s also about conservative panic about the seeming cultural lawlessness of the Obama administration.

Conservative commentators are caterwauling that the Obama administration is rewriting Title VII and its sister act, Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972—which prohibits discrimination in schools—to advance a transgender agenda. They complain that transgender people are not a protected class under Title VII or Title IX, and that extending the anti-discrimination protections found in those statutes to transgender people requires Congress’ stamp of approval.

Notably, McCrory’s complaint is silent on Title IX, presumably because the Fourth Circuit (which is where North Carolina sits) announced last month that it would defer to the Obama administration’s Title IX guidelines, which require schools that receive public funding to permit transgender students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. The Obama administration reaffirmed this guidance in a letter to public schools on Friday.

The primary complaint of McCrory and his cronies is that the Obama administration is redefining “sex,” and that the new definition far exceeds anything that Congress could have contemplated when it enacted the twin statutes in 1964 and 1972. McCrory’s complaint about the “radical reinterpretation” of Title VII underscores that point.

But that’s not necessarily true. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for interpreting and enforcing Title VII under the Obama administration, isn’t redefining “sex” for purposes of the prohibition against sex discrimination in Title VII. Not really. Rather, the EEOC has given the term some context in light of Hopkins and similar cases, in which courts have recognized that sex discrimination includes gender stereotyping.

And the EEOC is well within its right to do so. In 1997’s Auer v. Robbins, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal agencies are entitled to interpret their own regulations as they see fit, as long as their interpretation isn’t erroneous and doesn’t conflict with the plain language of the statute or regulation.

Assuming the North Carolina federal court follows the Auer rule, McCrory won’t have a legal leg to stand on.

McCrory will likely argue that Congress did not intend the term “sex” to mean anything other than “biological male” or “biological female.” But certainly the EEOC’s more expansive interpretation—that sex includes gender identity—is not contradicted by Title VII or by congressional intent. Indeed, the legislative history regarding Title VII is rather sparse because the prohibition against sex discrimination was a last-minute addition to its protections.

Title VII initially was conceived to prohibit racial discrimination in the workplace. Rep. Howard Smith (D-VA) introduced an amendment to add sex discrimination protections to Title VII a mere two days before the House of Representatives was scheduled to vote on it. Smith, who was a vocal opponent of civil rights for Black people, was considered a staunch supporter of women’s rights. (How he felt about Black women—or whether he even knew that they existed—is anyone’s guess.) So any discussion of congressional intent with respect to sex discrimination and Title VII is going to be short-lived.

An argument could certainly be made that Congress was not contemplating that “sex” would mean anything other than “male or female” and that it didn’t intend sex discrimination to encompass gender identity when it passed the statute, but if there’s nothing in the legislative history, then who can tell?

Besides, as a wise man once said, “Statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”

That’s Justice Antonin Scalia writing the majority opinion in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, a case involving male-on-male sexual harassment. Scalia noted that “male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII.”

Almost assuredly, neither was transgender bathroom access, but that doesn’t mean denying transgender people the dignity of using a bathroom aligned with their gender identity is not a “principal evil” prime for redress under Title VII.

After all, if it’s good enough for Scalia, it should be good enough for Gov. McCrory.