WASHINGTON — President Trump on Wednesday rescinded protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity, overruling his own education secretary and placing his administration firmly in the middle of the culture wars that many Republicans have tried to leave behind.
In a joint letter, the top civil rights officials from the Justice Department and the Education Department rejected the Obama administration’s position that nondiscrimination laws require schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.
The question of how to address the “bathroom debate,” as it has become known, opened a rift inside the Trump administration, pitting Education Secretary Betsy DeVos against Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Mr. Sessions, who had been expected to move quickly to roll back the civil rights expansions put in place under his Democratic predecessors, wanted to act decisively because of two pending court cases that could have upheld the protections and pushed the government into further litigation.
But Ms. DeVos initially resisted signing off and told Mr. Trump that she was uncomfortable because of the potential harm that rescinding the protections could cause transgender students, according to three Republicans with direct knowledge of the internal discussions.
Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, initially resisted signing off on the order and told President Trump that she was uncomfortable with it. Mr. Sessions, who has opposed expanding gay, lesbian and transgender rights, pushed Ms. DeVos to relent. After getting nowhere, he took his objections to the White House because he could not go forward without her consent. Mr. Trump sided with his attorney general, the Republicans said, and told Ms. DeVos in a meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday that he wanted her to drop her opposition. And Ms. DeVos, faced with the alternative of resigning or defying the president, agreed to go along.
Ms. DeVos’s unease was evident in a strongly worded statement she released on Wednesday night, in which she said she considered it a “moral obligation” for every school in America to protect all students from discrimination, bullying and harassment.
She said she had directed the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate all claims of such treatment “against those who are most vulnerable in our schools,” but also argued that bathroom access was not a federal matter.
Gay rights supporters made their displeasure clear. Outside the White House, several hundred people protested the decision, chanting, “No hate, no fear, trans students are welcome here.”
Individual schools will remain free to let transgender students use the bathrooms with which they are most comfortable. And the effect of the administration’s decision will not be immediate because a federal court had already issued a nationwide injunction barring enforcement of the Obama order.
The dispute highlighted the degree to which transgender rights issues, which Mr. Trump expressed sympathy for during the campaign, continue to split Republicans, even as many in the party argue that it is time to move away from social issues and focus more on bread-and-butter pocketbook concerns.
Social conservatives, one of Mr. Trump’s most loyal constituencies, applauded him for honoring a pledge he had made to them during the campaign. They had argued that former President Barack Obama’s policy would allow potential sexual predators access to bathrooms and create an unsafe environment for children.
“The federal government has absolutely no right to strip parents and local schools of their rights to provide a safe learning environment for children,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
But supporters of transgender rights said the Trump administration was acting recklessly and cruelly. “The consequences of this decision will no doubt be heartbreaking,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “This isn’t a states’ rights issue; it’s a civil rights issue.”
Despite his personal views, Mr. Trump’s decisions in office have been consistently conservative on social issues. And he has shown considerable deference to the religious right, naming many religious conservatives to top cabinet posts and pledging to fight for religious freedom protections and restrictions on abortion.