NC, Justice Department exchange legal fire over ‘bathroom’ law

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RALEIGH, N.C. – North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, facing a Monday ultimatum from President Barack Obama’s Justice Department over enforcing a law requiring citizens to use bathrooms and changing rooms that correspond with their biological sex, responded by suing the department.

Later that afternoon, the Justice Department punched back, filing a lawsuit that aims to make good on a threat to halt the flow of federal aid to the Tar Heel State if McCrory refuses to reverse course on its so-called bathroom bill law. A similar measure is pending in the Massachusetts Legislature, and fights over such laws in multiple states have pushed the issue into the national spotlight.

The Justice Department had challenged McCrory, a Republican running for reelection in November, over the bill he signed in March after its rapid passage by the state Legislature. McCrory, the state’s public safety department and the 17-campus University of North Carolina system received letters from the administration last Wednesday threatening a federal lawsuit over the measure, known as House Bill 2, or HB 2.

McCrory decision to sue left no doubt of his answer: He’s not willing to bend on the issue, calling the Justice Department’s position “baseless and blatant overreach.”

“The overwhelming weight of legal authority recognizes that transgender status is not a protected class under Title VII,” McCrory’s lawsuit states, referring to a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that Justice Department officials claim guarantees transgender people access to a public agency’s bathrooms and changing facilities as they deem fit.

McCrory’s filing lists six cases in which Title VII was found not to include transgender protections.

The Justice Department’s lawsuit also claims that the North Carolina law violates the department’s interpretation of Title IX, a 1972 U.S. mandate that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex by colleges that receive federal aid, and the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. McCrory claims that those legal interpretations are “misguided” and “ignore the bodily privacy” of other people.

Briefing reporters about the legal action on Monday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said McCrory and state lawmakers have “placed North Carolina in violation against federal law based on sex and gender identity.”

“I want you to know we retain the option of curtailing federal funding to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina as this case proceeds,” Lynch said. She added that the Justice Department lawsuit is “about a great deal more than bathrooms.”

Lynch recalled Jim Crow segregation laws and pro-same sex marriage initiatives and claimed the North Carolina law “provides no benefit to society.”

Lynch also stressed that the Justice Department and “the entire Obama administration” oppose the state law. Asked by a reporter if she consulted at all with the White House, Lynch said that the Justice Department “makes our enforcement action separately and independently.”

But Obama has made clear his opposition to the law. He described it, along with a similar law passed in Mississippi, as “wrong” and added that both “should be overturned,” at a news briefing in London last month.

In Washington on Monday, another reporter, citing the Justice Department lawsuit’s references to bathrooms and “changing facilities,” asked Lynch whether she saw a difference between the two.

Lynch responded by saying that the North Carolina law “does not distinguish among them” and added that “you cannot single out one particular group of people to be treated differently.”

Asked to comment on McCrory’s opinion that the Justice Department’s action constitutes executive overreach, Lynch said she would prefer to “shift the issue” to consideration of the feelings of transgender individuals.

Shortly after the bathroom bill became law, University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings sent an advisory to the leaders of all the schools in the system reminding them to adhere to the new statute, according to the Justice Department’s filing. After an inquiry by the department as to whether she believed the schools were complying with federal law, Spellings apparently responded by saying that “the university is specifically covered by HB 2 and is required as a public agency to comply with its applicable portions, including the provisions related to multiple-occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities.”

The state university system may lose out on more than $1.4 billion in federal funding if the courts determine that it violated federal law in adhering to HB 2, and may jeopardize another $800 million in federally backed student loans, according to an Associated Press report.

Monday’s exchange of legal assaults occurred days before the Massachusetts Senate is slated to debate a bathroom bill that has been pending since last year. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker last month was loudly jeered at a Boston event over his refusal to take a stand on the issue until after state lawmakers act on the measure.

The Senate plans to take up the debate Thursday.

Read a copy of McCrory’s lawsuit against the Justice Department:

  2016-05-09 NC v USA

Read a copy of the Justice Department’s lawsuit against McCrory and North Carolina:

2016-05-09 USA v NC