Justice Department Sues North Carolina Over Its Bathroom Law

  • State's governor spurned ultimatum to stop enforcing measure
  • Measure prompted PayPal and Deutsche Bank to halt job plans

The U.S. Justice Department has sued North Carolina over its law regulating the bathroom choices of transgender people, calling it a violation of the federal Civil Rights Act and seeking an injunction.

The state’s governor and legislature “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,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Monday at a news conference in Washington. “This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms. 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.”

The Justice Department last week gave Republican Governor Pat McCrory until the end of Monday to confirm that North Carolina wouldn’t implement the law he signed in March. Instead, he responded Monday morning with his own lawsuit, asking that a U.S. judge clarify federal law.

“The Obama administration is bypassing Congress by attempting to rewrite the law and set basic restroom policy, locker-room policy and even shower policies for public and private employers across the country, not just in North Carolina,” McCrory said at a press briefing in Raleigh.

The North Carolina measure overrides local laws intended to protect people from discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in employment and in accommodations such as bathrooms. The law requires transgender people to use public restrooms corresponding to the gender identified on their birth certificates.

PayPal, Deutsche Bank

Since the law’s passage, companies including PayPal Holdings Inc. and Deutsche Bank AG have announced they were pulling back from plans to expand in the state. Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr canceled concerts, and governors of New York, Connecticut and other states have ordered a halt to nonessential government travel to North Carolina.

But McCrory said Monday that he expected businesses across the U.S. to join in North Carolina’s lawsuit.

The bathroom standoff is a new front in a national battle over sexual and gender rights and mores after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage last year. It surfaced in Houston in November, when voters overwhelmingly overturned an ordinance that established broad discrimination protections for gay and transgender residents. Labeling it the bathroom law, opponents said it would allow men access to women’s restrooms, raising the specter of sexual predation in the stalls.

Monday’s federal lawsuit says the North Carolina state government, the Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina and its board of governors "are engaged in, and continue to engage in, a pattern and practice of sex discrimination in the terms and privileges of employment against their transgender employees."

Lynch didn’t rule out curtailing federal funding for the state, including to the university system. She said the university has contacted the Justice Department and its board will meet Tuesday. The attorney general said the Justice Department is also monitoring and reviewing other jurisdictions considering similar laws.

QuickTake: Transgender Rights

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday that the law “is just mean-spirited, because it seeks to discriminate against people based on who they are.” He said it’s also “inconsistent with the economic interests of North Carolina.”

The state has been locked in struggle for years, a clash between the “New South” establishment that brought Bank of America Corp. to Charlotte and IBM to the Research Triangle Park, and a firebrand Republican majority that took over the legislature in 2010. McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, was elected as a bank-friendly technocrat but has been pulled repeatedly into social issues by lawmakers emulating the confrontational politics of the Deep South.

The standoff with the federal government began in February, when Charlotte’s city council passed an ordinance allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice. Lawmakers called a special session and passed the bill in 12 hours on March 23.

‘Washington Overreach’

Phil Berger, the Republican president of North Carolina’s Senate, House Speaker Tim Moore and McCrory have said the Justice Department was bullying their state.

“It’s something we’ve never seen regarding Washington overreach in my lifetime,” McCrory said in a video interview with the News & Observer of Raleigh last week.

Opponents of the law say it has embarrassed the state and cost jobs and revenue. McCrory’s decision to sue the federal government is disappointing, said Chris Fitzsimon, director of NC Policy Watch, which pushes causes such as affordable housing and immigrant rights.

“It’s astonishing that the governor would go to the wall on something that clearly discriminates against people and is damaging North Carolina and damaging his legacy,” Fitzsimon said.

The case filed by the governor is McCrory v. U.S., 16-cv-00238, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of North Carolina (Raleigh). The case filed by the Justice Department is U.S. v. State of North Carolina, 16cv425, U.S. District Court, Middle District of North Carolina (Greensboro.)

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