Judge: Sweetwater County lawsuit likely fails to show broad parental rights violations
August 3, 2023
CASPER — The Sweetwater County parents suing a southern Wyoming school district for allegedly concealing their child’s gender identity and contributing to their child’s “social transitioning” have updated their lawsuit after a judge’s order to focus their legal case on parental rights and freedom of religion claims.
Ashley and Sean Willey sued Sweetwater County School District No. 1 and several district administrators in April. They accused the district of violating their parental rights by following their child’s requests to use a male name and pronouns at Black Butte High School in Rock Springs without notifying them.
When the Willeys did find out and directed district staff to use the child’s female name and pronouns, school and district administrators allegedly said they would continue to follow the student’s requests even if they went against the Willeys’ wishes, according to the lawsuit.
The student later reverted to using their given name and pronouns, according to the school district’s legal filings.
The Willeys’ initial complaint included claims that the school district infringed on the family’s privacy rights.
In their updated lawsuit, the Willeys and their lawyers narrowed the scope of the lawsuit, concentrating on their case that the district prevented them from acting as parents and violated their religious beliefs by treating the student as a different gender without parental knowledge or consent.
Ashley Willey, a district math teacher, is also arguing Sweetwater County School District No. 1 ignored her freedom of speech rights by requiring her to use preferred names and pronouns for her students.
The Willeys’ lawyers submitted the updated complaint following a June 30 order from U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl that found many parts of the lawsuit were unlikely to succeed, including the Willeys’ assertions that the school district was violating their parental rights by using the student’s preferred name and pronouns. Skavdahl concluded the Willeys failed to show the school district was interfering with their right to manage the mental health care of their child because the district’s pronoun policy was not directed at medical care.
Part of the issue, Skavdahl wrote, was that the Willeys’ initial lawsuit did not say their child had a mental health condition or had seen a school counselor about their gender identity. Skavdahl noted that courts have held being transgender is “not a psychiatric condition.”
“There is insufficient evidence to suggest the Policy amounted to active social transitioning or any other kind of ‘treatment’ for a mental health condition,” he wrote.
In their updated lawsuit, the Willeys and the family’s private counselor told the court the student had “symptoms of gender dysphoria,” a mental health diagnosis identified by the American Psychiatric Association and an example that Skavdahl referenced in his analysis.
They also stated the student had been seeing mental health counselors at school.
Ashley Willey accused the school district of withholding information about those in-school counseling sessions.
“Concealing information relevant and critical to the treatment plan instituted by Mrs. Willey and her chosen counselor interferes with her ability to exercise her fundamental parental right to make decisions regarding [the student] A.S.’s mental health,” Cheyenne-based attorney Henry Bailey Jr. and lawyers with the Georgia-based Child and Parental Rights Campaign wrote.
The Willeys and their lawyers sought to reinforce their argument that the school district was allowing minors to supersede their parents even though they cannot legally consent to medical care or mental health treatment under Wyoming law.
“Through the Preferred Names Policy, Defendants are usurping Plaintiffs’ role as parental decision makers and granting decision making authority for issues of profound importance to identity, personhood, religious beliefs, and emotional and mental well-being to children (and District personnel),” the Willeys’ legal team wrote.
The amended lawsuit filed last month otherwise relies on many of the same arguments the Willeys’ made in their initial complaint, including that Ashley Willey’s religious beliefs, which do not acknowledge transgender people, should preclude her from following district policies requiring teachers to use a student’s preferred pronouns.
In May, lawyers for Sweetwater County School District No. 1 asked Skavdahl to deny the Willeys’ request for temporary restrictions against the district, calling their allegations “nonexistent.”
Attorneys Kathleen Chaney and Eric Hevenor of the Denver law firm Lambdin & Chaney portrayed the lawsuit as the Willeys’ attempt to force their personal beliefs on the district and “seek their fifteen minutes of fame.”
The district’s lawyers later asked Skavdahl to throw out the case, telling the judge the case had no legal basis because the student had gone back to using their given pronouns and Ashley Willey had never been asked to use a transgender student’s preferred pronouns while teaching.
While Skavdahl poked holes in much of the Willeys’ legal argument, he also ruled against the school district.
He barred the district from concealing students’ use of different pronouns if their parents asked unless there is “reasonable concern of physical abuse or harm.”
Skavdahl agreed with the Willeys, opining that the school district’s policy to respect the privacy of students even amid questions from their parents likely runs afoul of their parental rights.
“While parents do not have the right to manage the operations of a school or even the courses and curriculum,” he wrote, “they do have a right to direct their minor child’s education which cannot be accomplished unless they are accurately informed in response to their inquiries.”