A federal court in Washington has blocked President Donald Trump’s directive that prohibited transgender people from serving in the U.S. military, a significant setback to the White House, although it continued to block use of federal funds for gender reassignment surgery for military personnel.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling Monday restored the Obama-era policy allowing transgender troops to openly serve in the armed services. The ruling comes three months after Trump first used social media to declare them banned from military service.
“As far as the court is aware at this preliminary stage, all of the reasons proffered by the president for excluding transgender individuals from the military in this case were not merely unsupported, but were actually contradicted by the studies, conclusions and judgment of the military itself,” Kollar-Kotelly wrote in a 76-page decision.
In 2016, the Obama administration placed protection of gender rights on par with race, religion, color, sex and sexual orientation as part of a broader Pentagon initiative to bring the military in line with society.
Transgender troops could serve openly and individuals were to be allowed to openly enlist for the first time in the military by Jan. 1, 2018.
The Pentagon was blindsided in July when Trump abruptly declared on Twitter that the military would not “accept or allow” transgender troops to serve “in any capacity.”
A major change of Pentagon policy is typically subject to months, if not years, of study and legal vetting before it’s rolled out. In this case, Trump told Defense Secretary James N. Mattis a day before he put out the decision on social media.
It not only marked a retreat for the Pentagon’s effort to drop discriminatory hurdles, but also was an about-face for Trump, who had repeatedly vowed during the presidential campaign to support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
The president’s ban immediately drew rebukes from many war veterans and LGBT advocacy groups, resulting in lawsuits filed in California, Maryland and Washington state. The National Center for Lesbian Rights and GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders also sued the administration in Washington in August.
The administration had insisted the case be dismissed on the grounds that the Pentagon had launched a six-month review to study the effects of a ban before it could be fully implemented.
The Pentagon had until Feb. 21 to submit final plans on how it would implement the ban, including how it would handle thousands of transgender soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen now in uniform.
Those individuals could stay in the armed forces, the administration argued. It said active duty service members — including the six unnamed service members and two recruits represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders — would not be affected.
Kollar-Kotelly disagreed with that claim in her ruling.
“These arguments, while perhaps compelling in the abstract, wither away under scrutiny,” she said. “The memorandum unequivocally directs the military to prohibit indefinitely the accession of transgender individuals and to authorize their discharge. This decision has already been made. These directives must be executed by a date certain, and there is no reason to believe that they will not be executed.”
She added that the transgender troops who sued the administration over the change were likely to win their lawsuit.
“The court finds that a number of factors — including the sheer breadth of the exclusion ordered by the directives, the unusual circumstances surrounding the president’s announcement of them, the fact that the reasons given for them do not appear to be supported by any facts, and the recent rejection of those reasons by the military itself — strongly suggest that plaintiffs’ Fifth Amendment claim is meritorious,” she wrote.
The ruling was not a total defeat for the White House. The judge upheld part of Trump’s directive that blocked use of federal funds for gender reassignment surgery in the military because the plaintiff’s attorneys did not establish the impact of that money being held back.
Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, declared “a complete victory for our plaintiffs and all transgender service members, who are now once again able to serve on equal terms and without the threat of being discharged.”
“We are grateful to the court for recognizing the gravity of these issues and putting a stop to this dangerous policy, which has wreaked havoc in the lives of transgender service members and their families,” she said in a statement.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, declined comment during Monday’s press briefing, referring questions to the Justice Department.
The Pentagon is now working to form a panel drawn from the Defense Department and the Homeland Security Department that is supposed to report back on possible effects of a ban. Its members have not yet been named.