North Carolina's Republican leaders are showing no signs of backing down from their new bathroom rules despite the U.S. Justice Department's declaration that they violate federal civil rights laws and could cost the state dearly in lost education funding.
Gov. Pat McCrory called the Justice Department's threat — which gives the state and its university system until the close of business Monday to change the law or face the consequences in court — a broad overreach of federal authority.
"This is no longer just a North Carolina issue, because this conclusion by the Department of Justice impacts every state," McCrory said.
The North Carolina law, which requires transgender people to use public bathrooms conforming to the sex on their birth certificate, and limits protections for LGBT people, has been broadly condemned by gay-rights groups, businesses, sports leagues and entertainers, some of whom have relocated offices or canceled events in the state. Several other states have proposed similar laws limiting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender protections in recent months.
"I thought it was a very common-sense rule, but the federal government is now saying those are discriminatory practices," McCrory said during a Wednesday evening forum with the state's chamber of commerce in Raleigh.
McCrory and House Speaker Tim Moore, who helped pass the law the governor signed in March, said separately they would be examining the state's options. Moore told reporters the letter to McCrory was an attempt by President Barack Obama's administration to push a "radical left agenda" in his final months in office.
"Basic concepts — common sense about privacy and expectations of privacy — are getting thrown out the window by what the Obama administration is trying to do in this," Moore said.
The Justice Department said the North Carolina law violates federal Civil Rights Act protections barring workplace and student discrimination based on sex. Various federal agencies have further defined these protections as extending to transgender people, declaring that it violates the law to prevent people from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
"The State is engaging in a pattern or practice of discrimination against transgender state employees and both you, in your official capacity, and the state are engaging in a pattern or practice of resistance" of their rights, Justice Department Civil Rights Division leader Vanita Gupta wrote to McCrory.
Gupta also notified the 17-campus University of North Carolina system that the state law violates Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination in education based on sex. That could lead to North Carolina losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal school funding. In that letter, Gupta cited last month's federal appellate ruling supporting a transgender student's discrimination case against a Virginia school board that implemented a similar bathroom policy.
McCrory has defended the law and said he didn't think it would have any financial impact, either on the economy in general or on federal school funding in particular.
Gupta told McCrory and University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings to confirm by Monday that the state will not comply with or implement the law known as House Bill 2 and will notify public agency workers and other individuals that they are permitted to access bathrooms and other facilities "consistent with their gender identity." Similar demands were required of the state Department of Public Safety because it receives federal domestic violence prevention funds.
The letters effectively serve as a warning to the state to proceed at its own peril or risk being sued. Civil-rights groups and several individuals sued in North Carolina federal court in late March seeking to overturn the law.
McCrory and GOP legislators "were warned about these dire consequences, but they ignored the law and the North Carolinians it would harm and passed the bill anyway," said a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, which helped filed the lawsuit. The statement called for a full repeal of the law.
It has not been uncommon during Obama's administration for the Justice Department to weigh in on hot-button civil rights issues. The letters to North Carolina don't have the force of law, but they put the state on notice that its actions are being watched.
The Justice Department's intervention could affect similar laws passed in other states.
Mississippi's House Bill 1523, which becomes law July 1, says government and business workers can deny services to people by citing their own religious beliefs that marriage should only be between a man and a woman and that a person's gender is set at birth and is unchangeable.
The day after Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed the bill, Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking her to block what he called the "overreaching, unconstitutional, and blatantly discriminatory piece of legislation." Thompson told The Associated Press in a text message Wednesday that he had heard about the Justice Department's letter to North Carolina.