(CN) – The U.S. Justice Department on Monday sued North Carolina over its law restricting the use of public restrooms by transgender people, asking a federal court to declare the law’s provisions “discriminate on the basis of sex.”
The DOJ lawsuit says the law has caused transgender people to suffer “emotional harm, mental anguish, distress, humiliation, and indignity.”
In addition to declaratory relief, it also seeks an order that would prevent the law’s enforcement.
The lawsuit, filed in Charlotte, N.C. Federal Court, came just hours after Gov. Pat McCrory filed his own lawsuit over the law. McCrory wants the sweeping law, which limits protections for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people, kept in place.
In announcing the federal government’s lawsuit, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said North Carolina’s actions put it in direct opposition to federal civil rights laws and that the law itself amounts to “state-sponsored discrimination.”
“This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms,” Lynch said. “This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them — indeed, to protect all of us. And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country — haltingly but inexorably — in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.”
Later, while fielding questions from reporters, Lynch said the DOJ has been in contact with the University of North Carolina system, and has been told its board is meeting Tuesday to discuss the issues arising from the various lawsuits filed today.|
“We look forward to hearing what comes of that meeting,” she said.
She emphasized that while the government is currently seeking only declaratory and injunctive relief at this time, the government reserves the right to withhold federal funding from the state’s public safety and university systems as the litigation proceeds.
But before Lynch’s news conference was even concluded, North Carolina’s legislative leaders filed their own complaint over the state law. The lawsuit filed by House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger asks a judge to rule that the law does not violate federal civil rights law.
In a statement of his own released Monday morning, McCrory said he filed his request for declaratory relief in the federal court in Raleigh to give the court an opportunity to “clarify federal law.”
“The Obama administration is bypassing Congress by attempting to rewrite the law and set restroom policies for public and private employers across the country, not just North Carolina,” McCrory said. “This is now a national issue that applies to every state and it needs to be resolved at the federal level,” said Governor McCrory. “They are now telling every government agency and every company that employs more than 15 people that men should be allowed to use a women’s locker room, restroom or shower facility.”
Later, McCrory said he believes Congress should weigh in on the issue of “clarifying” federal civil rights laws, and that such a role should not be left “to a department of the administration.”
For its part, the White House on Monday called the North Carolina “mean-spirited” and “inconsistent with the values of fairness and equality and justice.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest restated President Barack Obama’s opposition to the law during a briefing with reporters Monday afternoon amid the intensifying showdown between the Justice Department and the state.
Earnest said the Justice Department’s action was taken “independent of any sort of political interference or direction from the White House.”
He said the administration continued to conduct a separate review of whether agencies might cut funding to the state in response to the law.
The controversial law was rushed through the state legislature in March by lawmakers who wanted to overturn an impending Charlotte ordinance that would have provided broad protections against discrimination in the state’s largest city, and also would have allowed transgender people to use public restrooms aligned with their gender identity.
The new law also prohibits counties, cities and other local municipalities from extending protections related to sexual orientation at hotels, restaurants and other businesses.It also requires university and other public school students to use only those bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates.
A week after McCrory signed the bill into law,a lesbian law school professor and two transgender people sued to overturn it, claiming that “by singling out LGBT people for disfavored treatment and explicitly writing discrimination against transgender people into state law, (the new law) violates the most basic guarantees of equal treatment and the U.S. Constitution.”
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who is running against McCrory for governor, said his office would not the law, and President Barack Obama later condemned it during a visit to Great Britain two weeks ago.
In his 10-page filing, McCrory dismisses the DOJ’s contention that the North Carolina law ” constitutes a pattern or practice of discriminating against transgender employees,” calling such claims “a baseless and blatant overreach.”
“The overwhelming weight of legal authority recognizes that transgender status is not a protected class under Title VII. If the United States desires a new protected class under Title VII, it must seek such action by the United States Congress,” McCrory says.
“In any event, North Carolina law allows plaintiffs to accommodate transgender employees while protecting the bodily privacy rights of other state employees, and nothing in Title VII prohibits such conduct or constitutes discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment of transgender employees,” the complaint continues.
“Moreover, the Department has similarly overreached in its interpretation of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. Even if VAWA specifically includes gender identity as a protected class, the North Carolina law is not discriminatory because it allows accommodations based on special circumstances, including but not limited to transgender individuals,” McCrory says.
On May 4, the Justice Department sent a letter to McCrory, state Secretary of Public Safety Frank Perry and University of North Carolina System President Margaret Spellings alleging violations of federal civil rights laws.
The Justice Department gave the state until the close of business on Monday to announce whether it intended to enforce the law that has now been on the books for two weeks and is already the subject of litigation, or to abandon it.
McCrory said Monday morning that he he requested additional time to respond, but DOJ officials rebuffed his request “unless the state agreed to unrealistic terms.”
“I’m taking this initiative to ensure that North Carolina continues to receive federal funding until the courts resolve this issue,” McCrory said.
He also announced he would provide an additional statement to the media at 1:00 p.m.
Advocates for civil rights and the LGBT community responded to McCrory’s decision to sue the DOJ with outrage.
“North Carolina’s HB2 law is blatantly unconstitutional and violates federal civil rights law,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “The Department of Justice has already been clear that it violates the civil rights of North Carolinians. The idea Governor McCrory is going to waste even more time and millions more taxpayer dollars defending it is reckless and wrong.
“HB2 is a vile law attacking transgender North Carolinians and leaves many more unprotected from discrimination. Rather than defending it, Governor McCrory should be working with state lawmakers to fix the mess he’s created,” Griffin said.
Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC also rebuked the governor, calling the lawsuit “just another tactic to delay a decision and is a continued waste of taxpayer dollars when it is already very clear that the only option is a full repeal of HB2.
“The Fourth circuit court has already provided guidance on this and continued litigation by the state is simply wasteful. The state house and senate must fully repeal HB2 with Governor McCrory’s leadership,” Sgro said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North Carolina, and Lambda Legal, who represent the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit to overturn the law, released a joint statement Monday forcifully condemning the governor’s latest actions.
“While transgender people in North Carolina remain in the perilous position of being forced to avoid public restrooms or risk violation of state law, Governor McCrory has doubled down on discrimination against them,” the statement said. “The federal government made clear that HB 2’s mandate of discrimination against transgender people violates federal civil rights laws but McCrory and other political leaders in the state have decided to risk federal funding to maintain that discrimination.
“Transgender people work for the state of North Carolina, attend school in North Carolina, and are a part of every community across the state. It is unconscionable that the government is placing a target on their backs to advance this discriminatory political agenda. Lawsuits are normally filed to stop discrimination—not to continue it,” the statement said.
The attorneys representing McCrory and co-plaintiff Frank Perry include McCrory’s top legal aide and Columbia, South Carolina-based lawyer Karl “Butch” Bowers Jr.
Bowers previously represented McCrory in a federal lawsuit alleging new Republican-backed voting law changes were intended to suppress minority voter turnout.
— Developing story.
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