Gender neutral bathrooms: a legal requirement, or will your church be exempt?

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This is a guest post written by Holly Whitman and is American-centric. Holly is a freelance writer and journalist, originally from the UK but now based in Washington DC. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman and more of her writing on her blog, Only Slightly BiasedTo submit a guest post, email

For the longest time, the most pressing issue about public restrooms was the mere fact that there often weren’t enough of them. This is especially true at concert and stadium venues, where the lines can stretch several hundred feet. Now, with the emergence of people identifying as transgender, the issue of restroom accommodation is taking on a whole new spin.

Will it become a legal requirement for a public building to require a men’s bathroom, a women’s bathroom and a non-gender-specific bathroom? And what about churches? Will they be required to expand their restroom facilities even if there is little chance of transgender members becoming a part of their community? Could this all be a case of political correctness run amuck? Clearly, there are a lot of factors to sort through when it comes to the bathroom question.

Changes at the local level

According to the website Refuge Restooms, there are currently 4,500 gender-neutral bathrooms across the country. Various city councils and state legislatures are also moving towards making these types of accommodations. In places like restaurants or office buildings, the fix can be easy. It simply means removing the “Male” or “Female” sign from the door. After that, the bathroom can be occupied (and locked from within!) by anyone of any gender.

So far, Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Austin and West Hollywood have all established gender-neutral ordinances. Chicago could become the next, and the largest, metropolitan area to enact this type of measure.

Proactive approach

Many businesses are taking the proactive approach. Before the legal questions about bathrooms become an issue, they are going ahead and making their facilities gender-neutral. In other words, they are avoiding the possible legal entanglements that could occur if an individual brings a discrimination suit. This requires many companies to review their current policies when it comes to human resource regulations.

The issue with schools and churches

The issues with schools and churches are another matter. A recent story that gained national exposure concerned the Denver-based family of a six-year-old who was born a boy but identifies as a girl. The school allowed him to use a clinic bathroom as opposed to the designated “girl’s room.” Although accommodations were made, the family opted to move forward with a complaint filed with the Colorado Civil Rights Office. This is prompting a further review and response from the school district, and it could mean everyone ends up in court.

In churches across the country, it might come down to the issue of individual institutions and their practices. And this is where things get complex. It has always been accepted that, when it comes to churches, the government will take a “hands-off” policy with regard to exclusion based on biblical tenets of that particular church. Some outsiders may view this as discrimination, while others see this as simply following the practices of their faith. In all likelihood, a church’s right to restrict facilities would remain intact. In other words, any type of civil suit brought against a church would probably fail. Again, it becomes an issue between public and private institutions.

The wait-and-see approach

Many churches might adopt the “wait-and-see” approach to this situation. If a member comes forward, identifies as transgender, and makes a request for accommodations, then the church can consider their request on a case-by-case basis. It might just be that this would never become an issue for most places of worship. One thing is for sure: The issue of restrooms just got a lot more involved.