The Justice Department seeks declaratory relief and threatens to curtail federal funding to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina.
With hundreds of millions of dollars in funding at stake, UNC System President Margaret Spellings said longstanding policy prohibits university personnel from discriminating on the basis of, among other things, gender identity, sex, or sexual orientation.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, announcing the U.S. legal action to reporters on Monday, cast the bathroom bill issue as the latest civil rights struggle of the era.
“It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had other signs above restrooms, water fountains, and on public accommodations, keeping people out based on a distinction without a difference. We’ve moved beyond those dark days,” Lynch said.
The act bans people from using public bathrooms that do not correspond with their biological sex. Since its passage in March, North Carolina has become a national battleground on the issue of transgender rights. It has drawn a flurry of condemnation from civil liberties groups, LGBT advocates and major businesses. It has also won praise from groups like the Family Research Council.
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After the law’s passage, musicians Bruce Springsteen, Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas, and the bands Pearl Jam and Boston canceled concerts in the state. Those cancellations have cost one major venue nearly $200,000 in ticket sales.
PayPal and Deutsche Bank have bothcanceled plans to expand into North Carolina.
The Justice Department said last week that “access to sex-segregated restrooms and other workplace facilities consistent with gender identity is a term, condition or privilege of employment. Denying such access to transgender individuals, whose gender identity is different from their gender assigned at birth, while affording it to similarly situated non-transgender employees, violates Title VII,” a section of the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination against workers on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.
The federal government demanded the state “remedy” the act or risk being in violation of federal law.
Instead, Gov. Pat McCrory filed a lawsuit calling the Justice Department’s position a “radical reinterpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.” Top state legislators, Phil Berger and Tim Moore, also filed a complaint against the Justice Department.
But Lynch on Monday said the legislature and governor put the state in “direct opposition to federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex and gender identity. More to the point, they created state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals who simply seek to engage in the most private of functions in a place of safety and security, a right taken for granted by most of us.”
After the federal government asked the state to certify by the end of the day Monday that it would not comply with or implement the bill’s restriction on bathroom access, Lynch said the state requested an extension and that had been under “active consideration.”
Instead, the governor and the state chose another course: a lawsuit.
“But instead of replying to our offer or providing a certification, this morning, the state of North Carolina and its governor chose to respond by suing the Department of Justice. As a result of their decisions, we are now moving forward,” Lynch said.
The federal suit also says the state is in violation of Title IX, the Education Acts Amendment of 1972 that bans gender discrimination in education, and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act that outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex.
“This action is about a great deal more than bathrooms,” Lynch said. “This is about the dignity and the respect that we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we as a people and as a country have enacted to protect them.”