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Wednesday, December 18, 2013 - 8:15am

Religious Groups Challenge Calif. Transgender Law Over Privacy

Updated: 12 months ago.

A coalition of churches and religious groups are trying to overturn a California law that aims to accommodate transgender students.

The law, slated to go into effect next year, allows students to use the restrooms and participate on the sports teams of their gender identity rather than their biological sex. But those who oppose the law see it as a threat to students' privacy.

'Nowhere To Go'

At Azusa High School in Southern California, Pat Cordova-Goff is the student body president, a varsity cheerleader, homecoming princess and a straight-A senior. But she isn't always comfortable at school. She is Azusa High's only openly transgender student, and when she's at school, she tries to avoid using the bathroom altogether.

"If I were to go to the boys' restroom, there's a chance I might be bullied, hurt, even harassed. But if I go to the girls', I'm kind of not allowed. I might get in trouble, so it's kind of like I have nowhere to go," she says.

Under California's new law, Cordova-Goff's school would be required to allow her to use the girls' bathroom. And it's precisely this bathroom policy that has riled opponents.

"That is so confusing, and so it opens the door for predators," says Judi McDaniels, a mother and grandmother who went door to door in the Los Angeles suburb of Chino Hills petitioning for signatures to repeal the law.

The School Success and Opportunity Act is its official name, but McDaniels and other critics call it the "coed bathroom bill." She says it will send a mixed message to kids whose parents have told them to value privacy.

"Now we're telling them, 'You're a young man, and there may be a girl in your bathroom, but that's OK,' " McDaniels says.

The campaign to repeal the law calls itself Privacy for All Students. With help from hundreds of churches and some of the same groups that fought gay marriage in California, opponents of the law gathered more than 600,000 signatures in just a few months. Those signatures are still being verified. The opponents need just over 500,000 valid signatures.

The law is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, but if the signature efforts prove to be enough, it will be put on hold until a statewide referendum next November.

A big part of the campaign was centered at McDaniels' church, Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills, led by founder and senior pastor Jack Hibbs. He says that more than 46,000 signatures were gathered by Calvary Chapel.

Hibbs says his duty as a pastor and as a parent is to shield children from discomfort and danger.

"I want to be very clear: Those who are struggling with their identity, that's not evil, but I have to protect those that would be offended by this," he says.

Hibbs is also concerned that the law is too vague and that teenage boys could use it to sneak into girls' bathrooms.

"Maybe a couple of guys bet him, 'Hey, pretend you're a girl today, go on in there, take a peek.' A child whose hormones at 13, 14, 15 are raging and we expect them to be civil? We're asking kids to be more adult about their body parts than we adults are," Hibbs says.

'Worried About Safety'?

Judy Chiasson with the Los Angeles Unified School District counters that students are not allowed to arbitrarily "decide that they're going to be girls for fifth period only."

"A transgender student is somebody who consistently, every day, all day long, wants to be recognized by their gender of identity," she says.

Chiasson helped craft the policy in her district that protects gender identity. It's a model for what's required under California's new law. The policy has been in place since 2005, and Chiasson says there have been no cases of misconduct.

"If somebody is worried about safety in the bathroom or appropriate behavior in the bathroom, I think that looking to our transgender children as the possible risk is very misdirected," she says. "If anything, they are going to be the target of misconduct, not the perpetrator."

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 78 percent of transgender kids in K-12 said they'd been harassed based on their gender identity. Sometimes that discrimination is subtle something Cordova-Goff says she has come to expect at her school in Azusa. For example, this year, she asked her cheerleading coach for a custom outfit men's pants but a women's top. When Cordova-Goff was handed a standard male uniform, she was crushed.

"I think in high school, where we're all supposed to find ourselves, it's pretty hard to find yourself when the person you've found is not the person society lets you be," Cordova-Goff says.

Backers of the California law argue that it simply lays out for school districts how existing state and federal nondiscrimination laws already require them to treat their transgender students.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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