Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision keeps Becky Pepper-Jackson (above) in competition. | Photo courtesy of ACLU

The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked West Virginia’s ban on transgender girls in girls school sports in a ruling Wednesday, saying the state’s “Save Women’s Sports Act” violated constitutional rights and Title IX.

The ruling is the latest in a nearly three-year legal battle engaged by 13-year-old transgender middle school student Becky Pepper-Jackson. Jackson, who has competed on her school’s cross-country and track teams, challenged the law after it was passed in 2021 and was upheld in an initial appeal. In February 2023, the Fourth Circuit blocked the law. An attempt to enforce the law while it was being adjudicated was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The central issue of this current ruling is whether the law violates Jackson’s rights. “The Act treats transgender girls differently from cisgender girls,” the decision read, “which is — literally — the definition of gender identity discrimination.”

The decision also noted several key elements to Jackson’s case: her status within her school, a transgender girl who has socially transitioned, started medical transitions prior to the onset of signs of male puberty; and her state, West Virginia, issued her a birth certificate listing her as female.

“The defendants cannot expect that B.P.J. will countermand her social transition, her medical treatment, and all the work she has done with her schools, teachers, and coaches for nearly half her life by introducing herself to teammates, coaches, and even opponents as a boy,” the decision reads.

“The defendants do not dispute that doing so would directly contradict the treatment protocols for gender dysphoria. It also would expose B.P.J. to the same risk of unfair competition — and, in some sports, physical danger — from which the defendants claim to be shielding cisgender girls.”

West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed the Save Women’s Sports Act into law in 2021. A likely successor vows to fight Tuesday’s ruling / Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

LGBTQ-supportive advocacy groups welcomed the decision.

“We hope today’s ruling sends a message of hope to the trans youth of West Virginia,” ACLU West Virginia’s Legal Direct Aubry Sparks noted. “And a message of warning to politicians who continue to dehumanize this vulnerable population.”

West Virginia Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is also fighting for the GOP nomination for governor, called the ruling “deeply disappointing,” and at least hinted at a next step that may involve the United States Supreme Court.

“I will keep fighting to safeguard Title IX. We must keep working to protect women’s sports so that women’s safety is secured and girls have a truly fair playing field,” Morrisey said to reporters Tuesday. “We know the law is correct and will use every available tool to defend it.”

West Virginia is one of 24 states that have placed a ban on transgender girls in girls’ school athletics. Just hours after the federal court ruling on West Virginia’s law, a county judge in Ohio ruled for a two-week injunction in the combination trans student-athlete ban/affirming health care ban passed in January and set to take effect next week.

The ruling also comes after the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics’ decision to ban transgender women from their competitions, and a lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association sponsored by a number of prominent anti-trans advocates and organizations.