Judges Block Transgender Care Bans for Minors in Kentucky and Tennessee


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Federal judges in two states intervened on Wednesday to temporarily block laws that would ban gender-transition care for minors, the latest instances where legislation targeting transgender people have been halted by the judiciary.

The separate rulings in Kentucky and Tennessee came days before key provisions of the laws were set to go into effect, as a wave of legislation aimed at curbing L.G.B.T.Q. rights has cleared Republican-controlled legislatures across the country this year. Several of those laws either remain tangled in legal battles, or have been ruled unconstitutional by federal judges.

In the first decision released on Wednesday, Judge David J. Hale of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky temporarily blocked part of a Kentucky law that would ban the prescription and administration of puberty blockers and hormone therapy — allowing health care options for transgender youth to remain available in the state while the litigation continued.

Most of the bill took effect immediately when it became law this year, but some provisions were set to go into effect on Thursday.

Hours later, Judge Eli J. Richardson of the Middle District of Tennessee made a similar decision to temporarily preserve access to such treatment in the state, days before Tennessee’s law was set to go into effect on Saturday. In a 69-page ruling, Judge Richardson pointedly noted that when challenged, similar bans on puberty blockers and hormone therapy had either been temporarily or permanently blocked.

“The court realizes that today’s decision will likely stoke the already controversial fire regarding the rights of transgender individuals in American society on the one hand, and the countervailing power of states to control certain activities within their borders and to use that power to protect minors,” wrote Judge Richardson, who was nominated to his seat by former President Donald J. Trump. “The court, however, does not stand alone in its decision.”

Transgender youth and their supporters have turned to the courts as a final resort to stop laws that they warn will be devastating to young people’s health and well-being. Their biggest victory came earlier this month when a federal judge in Arkansas overturned the nation’s first law banning transition care, declaring it discriminatory and unconstitutional.

A spokeswoman for Jonathan Skrmetti, the Tennessee attorney general, said the office would appeal the court’s decision. In a statement, Daniel Cameron, the Kentucky attorney general and the state’s Republican candidate for governor, vowed to continuing defending his state’s law and derided what he called “a misguided decision” that “tramples the right” of the Kentucky legislature to dictate public policy.

While Judge Richardson in particular made clear that it was possible that the state could prevail in the ongoing litigation over a permanent ban, both judges said that the coalitions challenging the laws had more successfully articulated their concerns over constitutionality and discrimination.

“If Tennessee wishes to regulate access to certain medical procedures, it must do so in a manner that does not infringe on the rights conferred by the United States Constitution,” Judge Richardson wrote.

Judge Hale, nominated to his position by former President Barack Obama, said in trying to counter the charges of unconstitutionality, the Commonwealth of Kentucky offered “a number of superficial arguments to the contrary, none of which are persuasive” and at one point resorted to “unnecessarily inflammatory language.”

The two men also signaled that both states had yet to successfully convince them that treating transgender youth with puberty blockers and hormone treatments was risky or unproven, noting that a majority of major health organizations said that transition care was safe for teenagers. Republicans have argued that it is too risky for anyone under 18.

Conservatives across the country have prioritized legislation targeting gender-transition care, with Tennessee Republicans symbolically designating their measure as the first House and Senate bill this session. That measure bans health care providers from offering new transition care to minors — including puberty blockers and hormone treatments — after July 1 and would end existing care for current patients by March 2024.

In Kentucky, lawmakers chose to bundle numerous restrictions into a single measure that L.G.B.T.Q. rights groups described as one of the most extreme anti-transgender bills in the country. The law, known as S.B. 150, prohibits doctors in Kentucky from providing gender-transition surgery or administering puberty blockers or hormone therapy to people under 18.

Parts of the Kentucky law that remain in effect include a prohibition on school districts requiring or recommending that any student be referred to by a pronoun that “does not conform to a student’s biological sex,” and a ban on transgender students using bathrooms that align with their gender identities.

Under the law, lessons about sexuality cannot be taught in schools before the sixth grade, and lessons are forbidden at any grade about gender identity or sexual orientation, among other things.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed the bill in March. It was vetoed by Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat seeking re-election, who said that it allowed “too much government interference in personal health care issues.” But the legislature overrode his veto.

A ban on transition surgeries for minors will go into effect in both states. Judge Richardson determined that the plaintiffs in Tennessee had not sought to protect access to the surgeries in their lawsuit. In Kentucky, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky did not challenge that aspect of the law.


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