When the Marion County School Board decided in a controversial 4-1 vote last week that they were going to restrict their students' access to bathrooms based on sex at birth rather than stated gender identity, there was a familiar face among the measure's supporters.
Liberty Counsel, the Orlando-based nonprofit that says it's "dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family since 1989," was there to represent Harrell Phillips. The Ocala Star-Banner reports Phillips told the board the school district's policy of allowing transgender students to decide which bathroom to use was violating his son's Fourth Amendment rights. Phillips' son was "deeply upset," according to a Liberty Counsel press release, because he had to share a bathroom with a transgender student who identifies as male at his Ocala high school.
"Our son has been walked in on by a student of the opposite sex," Phillips told the school board at the April 12 meeting. "His civil rights, privacy rights and religious liberties have been violated."
Liberty Counsel lawyer Roger K. Gannam has argued in similar letters to the Marion County School Board and the Brevard County School Board that transgender students are not protected under Florida law. The organization offered to represent the school district if the fight went to the courts.
"There is no legal mandate requiring the district to override the privacy rights of students and concerns of parents, by permitting gender-confused (or attention-seeking) students to inappropriately use restrooms and facilities reserved for the opposite sex," Gannam writes. "No school district has ever lost federal funding for maintaining gender-appropriate facilities, despite the claims of activists. A student with gender confusion who truly believes he or she is the opposite sex should be treated with care, compassion and kindness, but must not be officially affirmed in his or her confusion, no matter how sincerely held."
The school board proceeded with the vote despite the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida warning that the rule would "violate Title IX sex discrimination requirements, violate the equal protection clause of the US Constitution, and jeopardize federal funding for the school district."
For those unfamiliar with Liberty Counsel, this isn't their first foray into the country's religious divides. The nationwide organization led by married attorneys Mat and Anita Staver has represented Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and has been labeled an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. But more recently, Liberty Counsel told CBS News earlier this month that it's been "helping to draft legislation for conservative lawmakers in at least 20 states," including bills similar to the North Carolina HB2 law.
HB2 mandates that people use the bathroom that matches their birth sex, preventing transgender people who have not transitioned and changed their birth certificates from using the bathroom they feel is appropriate. It sets discrimination policies that exclude protections for LGBT people, and it forbids local municipalities from passing their own policies on nondiscrimination.
In its press releases, the organization cites cases of men they say have used "transgender policies" to sexually harass woman and children as the reasoning behind these bills. In an interview with Orlando Weekly, Mat Staver says the organization is against having gender identity and sexual orientation listed under nondiscrimination policies because the terms are "vague" and "subject to potential abuse."
"Someone can use gender identity laws to enter into the opposite sex's restrooms, locker rooms or shower facilities," he says. "With someone like Caitlyn Jenner, no one's going to say anything when she goes into the women's restroom because it's not a big issue ... But if you have a man who objectively looks like a man and now he tells you he identifies as female, you can't get into their mind to see whether they really identify one way or are trying to abuse the law."
Staver says his organization is not targeting anyone with the laws and dismisses the idea that transgender people might stop using public bathrooms in fear of the law.
"We're responding to a phenomenon," he says. "I think the average person has a problem with the laws from a personal privacy and personal safety standpoint for women. These laws are so broad that they will allow a 16-year-old boy who looks anatomically male to go into the girls' shower and then say he identifies as female. They would have a right to go in there, infringe the rights of others and invade their privacy and personal security."
Liberty Counsel was also in the news last week after Anita Staver said on Twitter that she would take her gun into women's restrooms in response to Target announcing its transgender customers and employees can use whichever store bathroom corresponds with their gender identity.
"I'm taking a Glock .45 to the ladies room," she wrote. "It identifies as my bodyguard."
After calling for a boycott of Target, Staver told someone on Twitter she's not afraid of transgender people, but "I want protection from the perverts who will use the law to gain access to women."
When Orlando Weekly asked for further details on Anita Staver's comments, a spokesperson sent us a statement from Mat Staver.
"Women are not concerned about transsexuals committing violence," he says. "They are concerned about men using 'gender identity' as an excuse to stalk and sexually assault them."
But a coalition of more than 250 sexual assault and domestic violence groups signed a statement saying the North Carolina law and others like it do nothing to prevent sexual assault, and instead put transgender people in harm's way.
"Those who are pushing these proposals have claimed that these proposals are necessary for public safety and to prevent sexual violence against women and children," the statement says. "As rape crisis centers, shelters and other service providers who work each and every day to meet the needs of all survivors and reduce sexual assault and domestic violence throughout society, we speak from experience and expertise when we state that these claims are false."
Assaulting someone in a restroom or changing room is already against the law in every state, and the North Carolina law is based on a "flawed understanding" of what it means to be a transgender person, the groups argue.
"Transgender people already experience unconscionably high rates of sexual assault – and forcing them out of facilities consistent with the gender they live every day makes them vulnerable to assault," the statement says.
Gina Duncan, director of transgender inclusion for Equality Florida, says the pushback from religious groups comes from a combination of two factors – the fact that same-sex marriage is now legal and the way that the transgender community is emerging from the shadows as a viable demographic. The Marion County School Board's decision invalidates the lives of transgender youth and takes away from needed discussion about violence against cis and trans women, she argues. Duncan says Anita Staver's online comments were based on a misunderstanding of gender identity.
"That kind of violent rhetoric is exactly what we're afraid of," she says. "For someone in her position, knowing fully well her organization is behind these anti-transgender bills across the country, to post something so hateful is completely unacceptable. Transgender people are simply trying to live their lives, and I can only imagine what young people thought when they saw that tweet. It creates a society that's intolerant and hateful."