B.P.J. v. W. Va. State Bd. of Edn., 98 F.4th 542 (4th Cir. 2024).

On April 16, 2024, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a split decision holding that West Virginia’s Save Women’s Sports Act (the Act) violated Title IX as applied to the plaintiff. The 2022 state law prohibited transgender girls from competition in girls and women’s sports in K-12 and college athletics throughout the state. After the Act went into effect, B.P.J., a transgender girl, was no longer allowed to compete on the middle school cross-country team. She sued the State Board of Education and local public school district, alleging that the Act violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and violated Title IX.

Beginning with the Equal Protection claims, the court applied intermediate scrutiny to the Act after determining that it constituted sex-based discrimination. The State’s position was that the law was enacted for the purposes of “participant safety” and “competitive fairness” to justify the Act’s treatment of transgender girls. The court questioned how B.P.J.’s exclusion from the cross-country team was substantially related to either of those interests. The facts of the case were that B.P.J. played a non-contact sport, so the court failed to see a participant safety issue. Additionally, the majority reasoned that B.P.J.’s early transition and prolonged use of hormone therapy called into question whether she enjoyed a competitive advantage over her cisgender peers. Since the parties disputed whether those assigned male at birth enjoyed a competitive advantage over cisgender girls, the court ordered further proceedings to debate the issue.

The public school tried unsuccessfully to argue that it should not be held liable since it was complying with the state law, rather than district policy that violated Title IX. While true, a federal law such as Title IX supersedes the district’s obligations to the state. After quickly dismissing the district’s argument, the court warned that mere compliance with a state law is not a legitimate defense to a Title IX violation.

According to the court, the Act discriminated against and caused harm to B.P.J. in violation of Title IX. The Act prohibited only one category of students, transgender girls, from competing on teams with their corresponding gender. The majority further explained that the state should not expect B.P.J. to go against her social transition to play on the boys’ team, and that the Act risked exposing her to the same level of unfair treatment that West Virginia claimed it was trying to prevent for cisgender girls because of B.P.J’s hormone treatments. The court was careful to note that its holding was a limited ruling on the Act as applied to B.P.J., and that it was not holding that Title IX required every transgender girl to play on a girls’ team.

What this means for your district
It is important to note that this decision applies only to the 4th Circuit. The ruling is limited to its facts as applied to a specific student playing a specific sport, and is not a blanket requirement that all transgender girls be allowed to compete on girls’ sports teams under Title IX. However, Title IX is a federal law and must be followed regardless of jurisdiction. Several states, including Ohio, have adopted similar legislation to West Virginia’s Save Women’s Sports Act. Conflict between these laws and Title IX may force districts into a situation where state compliance risks exposing them Title IX liability.