When a child struggles with gender dysphoria, many public schools will intentionally and actively conceal that information from the child’s parents. Does that violate any constitutional rights of the parents?

In Mead v. Rockford Public School District, Michigan parents sued their local school district after it treated their thirteen-year-old daughter as a boy for two months—while actively concealing these actions from them. While she was at school, the district referred to the Meads’ daughter by a masculine name and male pronouns, part of the controversial practice often called “social transition.” But the district used her correct name and female pronouns when communicating with her parents. It even altered official documents before sending them home.

As detailed in the complaint, the district’s actions only came out when a school employee accidentally failed to alter some references to the masculine name on an evaluation form before showing it to the Meads. The district had been corresponding with them as part of a special-needs assessment for their daughter, but it never mentioned that it had been socially transitioning her at school.

The district’s concealment implicates the Meads’ fundamental parental rights given the prospect of harm to their daughter. The scientific literature demonstrates that, absent any intervention, the vast majority of children who experience body discomfort will naturally embrace their biological sex over time. But interventions like social transition—including changing names or pronouns—have been shown to interfere with this natural desistance. Social transition can greatly increase the chances that the child will continue on to medical procedures such as puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones. And this pathway to medical transition exposes the child to a risk of serious, potentially life-long harms.

The Meads raise three constitutional claims in their response to the school district’s motion to dismiss.

First, the Meads argue that the school’s actions violate their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. In the landmark case of Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court held that free-exercise rights include the right of parents to raise their children in accordance with their religious beliefs, including the right to direct their children’s religious education and upbringing. By secretly transitioning the Meads’ daughter, the district directly undermined their religious beliefs. In the words of the Eleventh Circuit in Arnold v. Board of Education of Escambia County, it “deprive[d] the parents of the opportunity to counter influences on the child the parents find inimical to their religious beliefs or the values they wish instilled in their children.”

Second, the Meads argue the district violated their fundamental right as parents to make decisions about the upbringing, education, and healthcare of their children—a right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. As a plurality of the Supreme Court recognized in Troxel v. Granville, the liberty interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children is “perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized” by the Court. By deciding to treat the Meads’ daughter as a boy without their consent—indeed, by concealing that decision from them—the district deprived the Meads not only of the right to make healthcare decisions for their daughter, but also of the right to make educational decisions about the best schooling environment for her. Parents cannot make informed decisions for their children if schools hide pertinent information from them.  

Third, the parents argue the district violated a separate right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment: the right to procedural due process. This right guarantees adequate procedural protections before the government deprives a person of a cognizable liberty interest. One such interest is the right to parent one’s children. Far from providing adequate procedural protections to the Meads, the school district did not provide them with any procedural protection—not even notice—before secretly socially transitioning their middle-school daughter.

While some states (including Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, and North Dakota) have passed legislation to ensure that parents aren’t left out of the loop in such circumstances, many school districts are being told by activist organizations they are breaking the law if they speak to parents about their children’s struggles with gender dysphoria. This messaging is misleading some schools into deceiving parents like the Meads about the well-being of their children.

Mead v. Rockford Public School District gives a federal court the opportunity to clarify whether parents have a right to know what is happening to their children at school.

Note from the Editor: The Federalist Society takes no positions on particular legal and public policy matters. Any expressions of opinion are those of the author. We welcome responses to the views presented here. To join the debate, please email us at [email protected].