Washington • Transgender students on Wednesday lost federal protections that allowed them to use school restrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identities.
The administration came down on the side of states' rights, lifting Obama-era federal guidelines that had been characterized by Republicans as an example of overreach.
Without the Obama directive, it will be up to states and school districts to interpret federal anti-discrimination law and determine whether students should have access to restrooms in accordance with their expressed gender identity and not just their biological sex.
"This is an issue best solved at the state and local level," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said.
In a letter to the nation's schools, the Justice and Education departments said the earlier guidance "has given rise to significant litigation regarding school restrooms and locker rooms."
Anti-bullying safeguards would not be affected by the change, according to the letter. "All schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment," it said.
It was not clear what immediate impact the change would have on schools, as a federal judge in Texas put a temporary hold on the Obama guidance soon after it was issued — after 13 states sued.
Even without that hold, the guidance carried no force of law. But transgender-rights advocates say it was useful and necessary to protect students from discrimination. Opponents argued it was federal overreach and violated the safety and privacy of other students.
The White House said "returning power to the states paves the way for an open and inclusive process to take place at the local level with input from parents, students, teachers and administrators."
Transgender-rights groups say federal law will still prohibit discrimination against students based on their gender or sexual orientation. Still, they say lifting the Obama directive puts children in harm's way.
"Reversing this guidance tells trans kids that it's OK with the Trump administration and the Department of Education for them to be abused and harassed at school for being trans," said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
Conservatives hailed the change, saying the Obama directives were illegal and violated the rights of fixed-gender students, especially girls who did not feel safe changing clothes or using restrooms next to anatomical males.
"Our daughters should never be forced to share private, intimate spaces with male classmates, even if those young men are struggling with these issues," said Vicki Wilson, a member of Students and Parents for Privacy. "It violates their right to privacy and harms their dignity."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints joined other religious groups in an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court opposing the Obama administration's directive allowing transgender students to use restrooms that match their gender identity. The Utah-based faith argued that such policies are best left to Congress and statehouses.
The Obama administration's guidance was based on its determination that Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, also applies to gender identity.
The guidance did not sufficiently explain its interpretation of that law, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. "Congress, state legislatures and local governments are in a position to adopt appropriate policies or laws addressing this issue," he said.
Legal experts said the change in position could impact pending court cases involving the federal sex discrimination law, including a case to be heard by the Supreme Court in March involving Gavin Grimm, a transgender teen who was denied bathroom access in Virginia.
Fifteen states have explicit protections for transgender students in their state laws, and many individual school districts in other states have adopted policies that cover such students on the basis of their gender identity, said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign. Just one state, North Carolina, has enacted a law restricting access to restrooms in government-owned buildings to the sex that appears on a person's birth certificate. Lawmakers in more than 10 states are considering similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.