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Utah Supreme Court rules on transgender rights and birth certificates

Posted at 9:30 AM, May 06, 2021

SALT LAKE CITY — After more than three years of waiting, Utah's top court has ruled on an issue involving gender identity and birth certificates in a case with significant impact on transgender rights in the state.

In a 4-1 ruling, the Utah Supreme Court ordered judges to grant what are commonly known as "gender marker" changes.

"The adjudication of sex-change petitions lies squarely within the power granted to Utah courts by the Utah Constitution. Our district courts have the authority to adjudicate such petitions without any constitutional impediment," Justice Deno Himonas wrote.

"In order to prevail on such a petition, a petitioner must: (1) show the petition is not made for any 'wrongful or fraudulent purpose,' and (2) include objective evidence about the sex change reflecting the petitioner‘s identity, at minimum, in the form of evidence of appropriate clinical care or treatment for gender transitioning or change, provided by a licensed medical professional."

The Utah Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in the case of Sean Childers-Gray and Angie Rice, who have tried to have their birth certificates changed to match their gender identity. A transgender person seeking to have their government-issued IDs consistent with their identity must get the birth certificate modified under a judge's order. The group Transgender Education Advocates of Utah argues it's necessary because a driver’s license or other ID with the wrong gender marker on it can force a transgender person to out themselves on a daily basis: putting them at risk for ridicule, discrimination and violence.

While most judges in Utah have done gender marker changes without any issue, an Ogden judge refused to do it in Childers-Gray and Rice's respective cases, said Chris Wharton, their attorney. Because the Utah Supreme Court oversees all judges in the state, it was asked to decide what to do.

Speaking for the majority, Justice Himonas criticized the judge who refused.

"As for the district court‘s declaration that 'some biological facts are not subject to voluntary modification,' the reader must be clinically aware by now that the sex change we are discussing has less to do with biology than with identity," he wrote. "And as for the hypotheticals suggested by the district court, we generally frown upon unsupported slippery-slope arguments."

The state of Utah did not oppose what Childers-Gray and Rice were asking for, declining to appear in court in 2018 to present any kind of counter-argument. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes even declined to answer specific questions when the Court requested it.

Chief Justice Matthew Durrant sided with the majority of the Court on the name and gender marker changes, but dissented on whether the Court should look at it. Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee also issued a dissent about whether the Court should be deciding the issue.

Wharton said the Court's ruling will impact all transgender Utahns.

"It makes clear the role of the judiciary is to rule on the petitions that come before them and to rule on them on the merits," he said.

At a news conference on the steps of the Matheson Courthouse on Thursday, Childers-Gray and Rice hugged supporters and celebrated.

"It’s been a long time coming, and to be affirmed today? It means the world," Childers-Gray told FOX 13.

Rice said the decision impacts a transgender person's health care, travel and even a traffic stop and speaks to their whole identity.

"You aren’t just talking about a birth certificate. You aren’t talking about just a driver’s license or a passport. You’re talking about someone’s soul," she said in an interview with FOX 13.

LGBTQ rights advocates in Utah were thrilled with the ruling. Equality Utah director Troy Williams noted that in a year where legislatures have passed anti-transgender bills, Utah has taken a different path.

"The Utah Legislature rejected two anti-transgender bills, and today, the Utah Supreme Court has upheld transgender rights to live freely as their authentic selves. This is 'equality under the law' in practice, right here in Utah," he said.

Dr. Candice Metzler, the director of Transgender Education Advocates of Utah, said it is a good ruling at a time when transgender people are under attack.

"It creates a moment for us to celebrate and recognize there is hope. There are people out there that care," she said. "It helps us send a message of love to people who might be losing hope."

The justices took more than three years to decide the case, presumably waiting for the Utah State Legislature to take action and render the case moot. In 2019, a bill was introduced by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, to create a path for someone to change their gender marker to match their identity. However, the bill failed to achieve any consensus between transgender rights advocates, lawmakers and social conservatives on Capitol Hill. So he abandoned it, leaving it to the Court to decide.

Read the Utah Supreme Court's ruling here (note: FOX 13 has redacted the original names of the plaintiffs):