U.S. District Judge Nina Wang dismissed a civil case Tuesday brought by the parents of two Poudre School District middle schoolers who alleged the district violated their parental rights, guaranteed under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, to direct the upbringing of their children.
Wang’s decision throws a wrench into a growing conservative parents rights movement that aims to limit what schools can teach about gender, sexuality and race without the express written consent of parents. The case gained national attention from outlets like Fox News, which claimed a Colorado mother was suing the school district over a “secret gender transition club.”
In 2021, Jonathan and Erin Lee and Nicholas and Linnaea Jurich had middle schoolers who attended an after-school Genders and Sexualities Alliance meeting at Wellington Middle School, now called Wellington Middle-High School. The parents claimed both children experienced lasting emotional harm after the meetings, which led them to question their gender identities. Soon after the meeting, the parents elected to remove their children from the school district.
Attorneys from Illumine Legal and the America First Policy Institute, a conservative think tank dedicated to advancing policies that put “Americans first,” earlier this year sued the Larimer County district and its board of education on behalf of the families, citing the 2000 Supreme Court ruling in Troxel v. Granville that the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantees the rights of parents to oversee the care of their children, including their education.
Parents rights advocates often use this ruling to justify district policies that require parents to be notified if their children opt to go by pronouns other than those associated with the sex assigned to them at birth.
However, lawyers for the school district argued that nothing in the 14th Amendment gives parents a constitutional right to receive notice about topics discussed in curriculum and at after-school, voluntary extracurricular clubs that they may find objectionable, or the right to excuse their children from those discussions.
Wang agreed with the district.
“Troxel concerned parental visitation rights,” she wrote. “It did not discuss a right of parents to direct the policies of or lessons taught in public schools or a right to receive notice about topics planned for discussion.”
“The right of parents to direct the care, custody, and control of their children ‘is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by the Supreme Court,’ but several U.S. district circuits have already ruled that those rights extend only so far,” Wang said.
Based in Ohio, the 6th U.S. District Court defined those limits in an earlier decision. The ruling states, “While parents have a right to decide whether to send their child to public school, they don’t have a fundamental right generally to direct how a public school teaches their child. Whether it is the school curriculum, the hours of the school day, school discipline, the timing and content of examinations, the individuals hired to teach at the school, or the extracurricular activities offered at the school or, as here, a dress code, these issues of public education are generally ‘committed to the control of state and local authorities.’”
Wang also wrote in her decision that nothing in the 2000 Supreme Court ruling says parents have a constitutional right to exercise control over extracurricular activities.
The parents’ attorneys also alleged that the Poudre School District violated Colorado law that states parents must be notified and allowed to opt out of educational materials that discuss sexually explicit content.
However, the judge ruled that a state-law requirement doesn’t equate to a constitutional right and that a district or school principal’s failure to follow the opt-out requirements doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of a constitutional complaint.
Equal protection claim
Wang also dismissed the lawsuit’s second claim that the district denied the Lees’ other child equal protection when it refused to allow them to fill out a gender support plan for the cis 7-year-old.
The parents wanted to ensure the district would only ever be able to use their son’s birth name and gender pronouns even though their son is not a transgender student. They claimed it was a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause to provide gender support plans for transgender but not cis students.
Again, the judge disagreed, opting to rule in favor of the district’s argument that gender support plans are meant to provide transgender students access to a supportive environment. Cis students already “inherently” have access to such an environment, according to the ruling.
Attorneys for the parents have until Jan 9 to file a motion to amend the court order; otherwise, the case will be closed.
Newsline contacted representatives of the Poudre School District, Illumine Legal, and the America First Policy Institute for comment but had not received a reply by the time of publication.
This article originally appeared in Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: [email protected]. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.