Columns

Comparing Bathroom Bill to Jim Crow Laws, DOJ Sues North Carolina

Sheriff David Clarke, Jr., of Milwaukee County, Wis., salutes the audience before his speech at the National Rifle Association convention Friday, May 20, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department answered North Carolina’s lawsuit over its bathroom bill with a lawsuit of its own that Attorney General Loretta Lynch said is necessary to protect those “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.”

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory filed a declaratory judgment action asking for clarification of federal law as “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.”

“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,” McCrory said earlier Monday. “I’m taking this initiative to ensure that North Carolina continues to receive federal funding until the courts resolve this issue.”

It’s also a campaign issue for McCrory, who is being challenged by Attorney General Roy Cooper in November and refuses to defend the bathroom bill in court. McCrory’s campaign manager Russell Peck said in a statement that Cooper “decided to team up with Washington, D.C. and out-of-state special interests seeking to do harm to North Carolina rather than standing up for our families and businesses.”

Last week, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division notified North Carolina that House Bill 2 ran afoul of federal civil rights laws.

Lynch said Monday afternoon at the Justice Department that the federal government’s lawsuit is a response to McCrory’s reaction.

The DOJ is suing McCrory, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, and the University of North Carolina. The lawsuit alleges violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA).

“We are seeking a court order declaring HB-2’s restroom restriction impermissibly discriminatory, as well as a statewide bar on its enforcement,” Lynch said. “Now, while the lawsuit currently seeks declaratory relief, I want to note that we retain the option of curtailing federal funding to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina as this case proceeds.”

“But this action is about a great deal more than bathrooms. 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, indeed, to protect all of us.”

Lynch stressed that “this is not the first time that we have seen discriminatory responses to historic moments of progress for our nation — we saw it in the Jim Crow laws that followed the Emancipation Proclamation; we saw it in the fierce and widespread resistance to Brown v. Board of Education.”

“Now, some of these responses reflect a recognizably human fear of the unknown and a discomfort with the uncertainty of change. But this is not a time to act out of fear. This is a time to summon our national virtues of inclusivity, of diversity, of compassion and open-mindedness,” she said. “And what we must not do, what we must never do is turn on our neighbors, our family members, our fellow Americans for something that they cannot control and deny what makes them human.”

“And this is why none of us can stand by when a state enters the business of legislating identity and insists that a person pretend to be something or someone that they are not or invents a problem that does not exist as a pretext for discrimination and harassment.”

The attorney general directed part of her remarks directly to the people of her home state, North Carolina.

“You have been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm, but that is just not the case. Instead, what this law does is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share,” Lynch said. “This law provides no benefit to society, and all it does is harm innocent Americans. And instead of turning away from our neighbors, our friends, and our colleagues, let us instead learn from our history and avoid repeating the mistakes of our past.”

“And let us reflect on the obvious, but often neglected lesson that state-sanctioned discrimination never looks good and never works in hindsight. 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.”

Lynch also directly addressed the transgender community. “No matter how isolated, no matter how afraid, and no matter how alone you may feel today, know this, that the Department of Justice and indeed the entire Obama administration want you to know that we see you, we stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward,” she said.