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Plaintiffs: Judge should have defined ‘woman’ in transgender sorority case

The six sorority sisters who sued Kappa Kappa Gamma for admitting a transgender woman into the UW sorority want an appeals court to reverse a ruling against them.

Allison Coghan (center) speaks alongside Madeline Ramar (left) Hannah Holtmeier (right) at a University of Wyoming event featuring Riley Gaines. Coghan, Ramar and Holtmeier are among the six sorority members suing UW’s Kappa Kappa Gamma for admitting a transgender woman. (Screenshot courtesy of the Leadership Institute YouTube)

by Maggie Mullen, WyoFile

The six sorority sisters who sued Kappa Kappa Gamma earlier this year for admitting a transgender woman at the University of Wyoming sorority asked a federal appeals court Monday to reverse a lower court’s decision to toss the case. 

In a scathing 97-page brief, attorneys for the sorority sisters allege U.S. District Court Judge Alan B. Johnson “fabricated obstacles to avoid” properly weighing in on the case. 

“The question at the heart of this case is the definition of ‘woman,’ a term that Kappa has used since 1870 to prescribe membership, in Kappa’s governing documents,” the filing with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals states.

“Using any conceivable tool of contractual interpretation, the term refers to biological females. And yet, the district court avoided this inevitable conclusion by applying the wrong law and ignoring the factual assertions in the complaint.”

Last spring, Jaylyn Westernbroek, Hannah Holtmeier, Allison Coghan, Grace Choate, Madeline Ramar and Megan Kosar sued the sorority for allegedly breaking its bylaws, breaching housing contracts and misleading members by admitting Artemis Langford, the first transgender woman to join the UW sorority. 

In his August ruling, however, Johnson wrote that the court cannot interfere with how the sorority determines its membership since it’s a private, voluntary organization. 

“Defining ‘woman’ is Kappa Kappa Gamma’s bedrock right as a private, voluntary organization — and one this Court may not invade,” Johnson wrote. 

He also applied the landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, wherein the high court ruled the private organization could exclude a gay man from its membership through its First Amendment right of expressive association. 

“Dale controls today, interestingly with the shoe on the other foot,” Johnson wrote. “Whether excluding gay scoutmasters in Dale or including transgender women in Kappa, this Judge may not invade Kappa’s sacrosanct, associational right to engage in protected speech.” 

But that doesn’t apply in this instance, the plaintiffs contend. In fact, the attorneys argue, it’s the role of the court “in such circumstances” to enforce the organization’s bylaws and rules.  

“Simply put, judicial enforcement of corporate requirements does not infringe an organization’s First Amendment rights of association,” the filing states.

The Kappa Kappa Gamma house pictured on a fall day in 2023. (Madelyn Beck/WyoFile)

In September, the plaintiffs told the court they would not pursue any claims against Langford. However, Monday’s appeal attempted to keep her in the center of the case.

The sorority sisters accused Langford of “inappropriate” behavior in the complaint filed with the lower court and said her attraction to women made her “more threatening.” Langford did not live in the sorority house, but spent time there.

Attorneys for Langford, however, provided evidence earlier this year of text messages that revealed the most salacious of the allegations resulted from  “a game of telephone after one sorority sister told a drunken story to another.”

Regardless, Johnson ruled the allegations were not only irrelevant to the plaintiffs’ claims but “unbefitting in federal court.” 

Langford has denied allegations of inappropriate behavior. Attorneys for Langford and Kappa Kappa Gamma did not immediately respond to WyoFile’s request for comment

Once more, the plaintiffs in their appeal disagreed with Johnson’s ruling and repeated the allegations in their filings, claiming Langford’s behavior invaded their privacy “and caused emotional distress in a personal and unique way.

“And thus Plaintiffs have pleaded a viable direct claim. This court should therefore reverse the district court’s dismissal of Plaintiffs’ derivative and direct claims.”

The sorority sisters also requested a hearing before a judge to consider the matter. 

It’s now up to Kappa Kappa Gamma to file a response. In October, the court ordered both parties to file briefs on the merits after the opposing sides disputed whether the lower court’s ruling could be appealed in the first place. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.