North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory filed a lawsuit Monday against the U.S. Department of Justice, asking a federal court to rule that its so-called “bathroom law” is not discriminatory.
In his complaint, McCrory (R) accused the federal government of “baseless and blatant overreach.” The lawsuit came hours before a deadline the Justice Department set for McCrory to say that he would abandon the law, which bans transgender people from using bathrooms that don’t match the gender on their birth certificates.
McCrory said that he was filing the complaint to help stave off uncertainty sparked by the debate and to ensure that North Carolina does not lose out on federal funding until the issue is resolved in court.
“We believe a court rather than a federal agency should tell our state, our nation and employers across the country what the law requires,” McCrory said during a news conference Monday afternoon. He added: “Right now, the Obama administration is bypassing Congress by attempting to rewrite the law and set basic restroom policies….for public and private employers across the country.”
The Justice Department had sent a letter to McCrory last week saying it determined that the controversial legislation, known as House Bill 2, violated federal civil rights law. Federal officials said that if no changes were made by the end of business Monday, they were prepared to file a lawsuit or strip the state of some federal funding.
“I do not agree with their interpretation of federal law,” McCrory said during his news conference. “That is why this morning I have asked a federal court to clarify what the law actually is.”
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the lawsuit, but the department said that Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch would announce a “law enforcement action related to North Carolina” on Monday afternoon.
While officials did not explain what the action would involve, in its letter last week, the Justice Department had said that it believed North Carolina was violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by “engaging in a pattern or practice of discrimination against transgender state employees.” The letter went on to say that if Lynch had a reason to believe a state was doing this, she could head to court to remedy the issue.
This action will mark the second high-profile confrontation between Lynch, a North Carolina native, and the Tar Heel State.
The Justice Department and North Carolina are already facing off in a fight over voting rights, as the federal agency joined other groups to challenge a North Carolina voting signed by McCrory in 2013 that is among the strictest in the nation, prohibiting same-day registration and voting and reducing early voting. (The Justice Department’s lawsuit against North Carolina in the voting case was first announced under former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., Lynch’s predecessor.)
A federal judge last month upheld this law, saying that “North Carolina has provided legitimate state interests” for its provisions. Civil rights groups have appealed the ruling in this case, which experts say could have legal ramifications for voting across the country during this election year.
In the fight over the bathroom law, McCrory said Monday the Justice Department had asked North Carolina officials to “set aside their constitutional duty and refuse to follow or enforce our state law.” As he did last week after receiving the letter, McCrory said that this has broad implications, stating: “This is not just a North Carolina issue. This is now a national issue.”
A day before filing the lawsuit, McCrory had said he planned to respond to the Justice Department’s letter by the Monday deadline, though he has criticized what he called the “unrealistic” deadline laid out by federal officials. McCrory said over the weekend that when he asked for more time to respond, he was told he could only get an extension if he publicly called the bathroom law discriminatory.
“I’m not going to publicly announce that something discriminates, which is agreeing with their letter, because we’re really talking about a letter in which they’re trying to define gender identity,” McCrory said in an interview Sunday with Fox News. “And there is no clear identification or definition of gender identity. It’s the federal government being a bully.”
Even though he had not explicitly said how he planned to respond to the letter, McCrory has repeatedly decried the Justice Department’s demand as government overreach. In an interview last week, Dan Forest, the Republican lieutenant governor, said he thought North Carolina had “equal standing to sue the government” over the matter.
This was echoed by the head of the Family Research Council, a socially conservative group.
“After nearly eight years of federal overreach, we are seeing state leaders stand up to Barack Obama’s effort to fundamentally transform America,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a statement. “I commend Governor McCrory for his political courage and moral clarity in resisting the Obama administration. If the White House can dictate the bathroom policies of America, what could possibly be beyond their reach?”
In a statement, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, called the law “blatantly unconstitutional.”
“The idea Governor McCrory is going to waste even more time and millions more taxpayer dollars defending it is reckless and wrong,” Griffin said. “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.”
McCrory was not the only official in the state to receive a Justice Department letter about the bathroom law. Officials also sent letters to the state’s Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina. Frank L. Perry, secretary of the public safety department, joined McCrory in filing the complaint.
Notably absent from this complaint: Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina system, who has said she would also respond by the Monday deadline. Officials with the university system did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a letter last week from Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, federal officials said that North Carolina’s law violates federal civil rights law.
The letter gave McCrory until the close of business Monday to say whether the state “will not comply with or implement” the measure and told state employees that “consistent with federal law, they are permitted to access bathrooms and other facilities consistent with their gender identity.”
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper (D), who will face McCrory in what is expected to be a close gubernatorial election in November, has said he will not defend the measure. A spokesman for Cooper dismissed McCrory’s complaint that the federal government gave the state less than a week to respond to the letter.
“Governor McCrory signed HB2 into law in the dark of night after passing it in just 12 hours, and now complains when he’s given five days to defend it,” Ford Porter, the spokesman, said in a statement. “The governor needs to undo this law now and stop playing politics with our economy.”
McCrory has repeatedly defended the state law, which he signed in March, as being a necessary response to a Charlotte city ordinance that expanded civil rights protections for people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He reiterated this view on Monday.
Leaders in the state said they were not approaching the Monday deadline expecting McCrory or the general assembly to alter the law. North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R) told reporters last week that legislators would “take no action by Monday” and “that deadline will come and go.”
Forest, the lieutenant governor, said after speaking with McCrory’s staff that he did not think the governor would turn to an executive order to tweak the law before the deadline. “I don’t think he would do that, I don’t think he has any intent of doing that, he hasn’t even hinted at that,” Forest said last week, noting that he does not speak for the governor.
The fight in North Carolina cuold have a major financial impact. Several federal agencies are reviewing whether to withhold funding because of the law, putting potentially billions of dollars at stake. One of those agencies — the Education Department — sends the state annually more than $4 billion, much of it in the form of student loans.
The bathroom legislation in North Carolina has drawn intense opposition from business groups and, in at least two high-profile cases, cost the state jobs and money.
After McCrory signed the law, PayPal and Deutsche Bank both said they were abandoning expansion plans in the state because of the measure. The companies had planned to employ hundreds of people in the state, and state officials had said these expansions would have brought millions of dollars to local economies. The National Basketball Association has also said it will move the All-Star Game from Charlotte next season if the law is not changed.
Sari Horwitz, Niraj Chokshi and Emma Brown contributed to this report.