The federal government of the United States is suing North Carolina over its sweeping anti-LGBT law known as House Bill 2.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced a federal civil rights complaint, filed today in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, in a press conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.
"This is about a great deal more than bathrooms," Lynch told reporters today. “This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens, and the law we as citizens and a country have enacted to protect them. It is about the founding ideals that have led this country, haltingly, but inexorably in the direction of fairness, inclusion, and equality for all Americans.”
The federal government’s complaint specifically targets the provision of the North Carolina law “requiring public agencies to deny transgender persons access to multiple-occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities consistent with their gender identity.” It seeks a declaratory judgment which, if granted, would declare HB 2 discriminatory on its face, and bar the state from enforcing the law immediately.
The nation's top law enforcement officer was explicit about the federal government's commitment to protecting transgender people. Speaking directly to transgender Americans, Lynch said:
"No matter how isolated, how afraid, and no matter how alone you may feel today, note this — the Department of Justice and indeed the entire Obama Administration want you to know: we see you, we stand with you, and we will do everything we can to support you going forward."
Lynch, who was born in North Carolina, also responded directly to the governor's repeated claim that the Department of Justice is "bullying" North Carolina lawmakers.
“I think the people who probably feel bullied are the transgender individuals who live and work in the state of North Carolina,” Lynch said bluntly.
The DOJ had given North Carolina leadership until the end of today to respond to a series of letters informing the state that HB 2 violates federal civil rights protections, particularly those for transgender people in employment. Instead of complying with the DOJ's request, North Carolina's Republican Gov. Pat McCrory today filed a federal lawsuit against the federal government, seeking a declaratory judgment in their favor.
In her press conference today, Lynch noted that the DOJ was "actively" considering North Carolina's request for an extension of the Monday deadline, when the agency was informed of McCrory's lawsuit. Calling the governor's action "unfortunate," Lynch acknowledged that North Carolina's lawsuit has effectively curtailed any other conversations about the bill between N.C. and federal officials.
The sweeping legislation was introduced, passed through both chambers of the state legislature, and signed into law by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in less than 24 hours during a special legislative session on March 23. In addition to barring transgender people from using the public bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, HB 2 repeals all existing local LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, and bars citizens from suing for discrimination in state court.
In so doing, North Carolina "created state-sanctioned discrimination against transgender individuals who seek to engage in the most private of functions in a place of safety and security," said Lynch, noting that such access is "a right taken for granted by most of us."
When announcing the lawsuit against the Obama administration earlier today, McCrory and his advisors claimed to be seeking judicial clarity on whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1969, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex (among other things), does indeed apply to transgender people. Since 2014, the Obama administration has consistently held that this prohibition on sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of gender identity (including in public schools), but McCrory and the Republican authors of the law argue that Congress has never explicitly confirmed the Obama Administration’s interpretation.
But Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and director of the DOJ’s Civil Rights division, said it was North Carolina that is critically misunderstanding federal law. Her remarks at today’s press conference were pointed:
“Calling HB 2 a ‘bathroom bill’ trivializes what this is really about. HB 2 translates into discrimination in the real world. The complaint we filed today speaks to public employees who feel afraid and stigmatized on the job. It speaks to students who feel like their campus treats them differently because of who they are. It speaks to sports fans who feel forced to choose between their gender identity and their identity as a Tar Heel. And it speaks to all of us who have ever been made to feel inferior — like somehow we just don’t belong in our community, like somehow we just don’t fit in. Let me reassure every transgender individual, right here in America, that you belong just as you are. You are supported. And you are protected. …
“The Department of Justice has for some time now made clear that sex discrimination includes discrimination against transgender people — that is, discrimination based on gender identity. That is consistent not only with the language of the statutes, but also with the legal interpretations adopted by federal courts — including the appellate court with jurisdiction over the state of North Carolina. There is nothing radical or even particularly unusual about the notion that the word ‘sex’ includes the concept of ‘gender.’ Transgender people are discriminated against because their gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. HB 2 denies transgender people something that all non-transgender people enjoy and take for granted: access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity. That’s sex discrimination, plain and simple. This view is only confirmed when proponents of measures like HB 2 misinterpret or make up facts about gender identity. Here are the facts. Transgender men are men — they live, work and study as men. Transgender women are women — they live, work and study as women.”