Judge sides with Line Mtn. wrestler; preliminary injunction granted, but case continues
WILLIAMSPORT - Siding with Audriana Beattie, a federal judge has given permission to the Line Mountain seventh-grader to continue wrestling on the district's all-male wrestling team.
The preliminary injunction granted Monday by U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann allows Beattie to participate in the program until the case is resolved, either through an out-of-court settlement or through trial.
"We are very pleased that Audriana will have the opportunity to pursue her passion for wrestling on her school's wrestling team," said Abbe F. Fletman, of Flaster/Greenberg PC, who is representing Audriana and her parents, Brian and Angie. Fletman is also a co-counsel with Women's Law Project in Philadelphia.
"Audriana is looking forward to continuing to practice and compete with the team, something she is very good at and has been practicing for more four years," she added.
It is common for parties to settle out of court after a preliminary injunction is granted, but she couldn't say whether that would happen with the Beatties and the district, she said.
Line Mountain attorney Chris Conrad, of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Camp Hill, said Monday the district is reviewing the order and discussing its options.
If the case proceeds to trial, the judge can rule in favor of the Beatties and issue a permanent injunction, or rule in favor of the district and keep Audriana off the team.
Brann had ruled Nov. 1 in what was termed a temporary injunction that Beattie was allowed to participate in the wrestling program as the suit proceeded, and the district is honoring that order.
Law rests with plaintiffs
The district has argued Beattie can't join the team because the wrestling program is gender-specific and that allowing her to join opens the district to liability. It says they are protecting Beattie and male athletes from potentially awkward situations and sexual contact during practices and matches, and the psychological scarring and inevitable injury and defeat of female wrestlers.
Her parents say the district is discriminating on the basis of gender in violation of equal protection and rights under the U.S. and state constitutions.
In his 29-page memorandum and order filed in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Brann, who heard testimony in November, sides with the Beatties in granting the preliminary injunction.
"The court is sensitive to and acutely aware of the school district's considerations and concerns. Despite these concerns, the law ultimately rests with the plaintiffs (the Beatties) at this juncture," he said.
The school district has not provided "sufficient, competent evidence" that enforcing the policy protects students from injury, sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct any more effectively than if Audriana Beattie is allowed to wrestle, Brann said.
Without injunctive relief, Beattie would "suffer irreparable harm in her development as a wrestler because she would miss opportunities to practice and compete" at the same frequency and quality as those accompanying the district's wrestling program, Brann said.
The missed opportunities would cause Beattie to "fall behind in her athletic development and prevent her from competing to her fullest potential in the future, including pursuing her aspirations at the collegiate level," he said.
In contrast, the district did not present evidence of harm from allowing her to wrestling that outweighs the harm if the injunction is denied, he said.
Athletic, not sexual
Brann addressed each of the district's arguments in the paperwork.
In regards to student safety, he said the district did not present any evidence that demonstrated that Beattie "is at a greater risk because of her gender than other students, aside from generalized assumptions about the biological differences between male and female strength."
Even if these assumptions represent real differences and not stereotypes, this justification fails to satisfy intermediate scrutiny because there is no evidence that the policy effectively achieves the stated objected of student safety, Brann said.
The policy is "under-inclusive" because some boys who may be weaker than some girls on an individual basis are allowed to wrestle while their safety may be equally or more at risk than Beattie or other capable girls, he said.
It is also "over-inclusive" because it prevents girls from wrestling when they may be equally as strong or stronger than some boys on an individual basis," he said.
In regards to sexual harassment, Brann said the district agreed that wrestling presents an opportunity for inappropriate touching and harassment regardless of gender.
"The school district does not forbid boys from wrestling on this basis, although they are exposed to the potential for inappropriate contact," he said.
Beattie testified she knows the difference between good and bad touching, Brann said.
"Indeed, wrestling is an athletic activity and not a sexual activity. There is no reason to suspect that girls who seek to join the wrestling team would be likely to mistake the contact which is inherent in the sport for sexual contact," he said.
Policies are in place prohibiting unlawful harassment and steps would be taken for any offenders, Brann said.
In regards to moral concerns, the district offered no evidence these concerns would rise to a level of an important government interest, Brann said.
"Indeed, it is not the duty of the school to shield students from every situation which they find objectionable or embarrassing due to their own prejudices," he said. "These attitudes, although well-intentioned, are simply not sufficient grounds for a gender-based classification under the Equal Protection Clause."
In granting the preliminary injunction, Brann prohibits the school district and its representatives from taking any action that would interfere with Beattie's efforts to participate on the wrestling team.
Brann's order is based on a hearing held Nov. 20 in Williamsport, at which seven witnesses, including Audriana Beattie, took the stand to testify over 5 1/2 hours.
The Line Mountain School Board will meet at 6:30 p.m. today.