Montana sues Obama administration to stop transgender bathroom directive

A sign protesting a recent North Carolina law restricting transgender bathroom access adorns the bathroom stalls at the 21C Museum Hotel in Durham, North Carolina May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
A sign protesting a recent North Carolina law restricting transgender bathroom access adorns the bathroom stalls at the 21C Museum Hotel in Durham, North Carolina May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) – Ten states including Montana sued the Obama administration on Friday, saying the federal government does not have the power to tell states that transgender people must be allowed to use public bathrooms that conform with their gender identity.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, takes issue with a May 13 letter sent by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education to states warning them that they could lose federal funding if they required transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex. The lawsuit says the Obama administration’s move was an attempt to rewrite federal civil rights laws that do not apply to transgender people.

It was filed by the attorneys general of the 10 states, which also include Arkansas, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming.

“President Obama’s administration is attempting to usurp local control of our schools – not by signing legislation passed by Congress, not by the agency rule-making process, and not even by executive order,” Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican, said. “Instead, the administration has issued a decree and is threatening our schools using flawed interpretations of longstanding law. The administration is attempting to force schools to adopt policies that have been specifically rejected by Congress and that even directly contradict a prior position of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Justice Department did not immediately have a comment.

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in a nationwide debate over rights for transgender people.

Officials from Texas, Wisconsin and nine other states on May 25 filed a nearly identical lawsuit in federal court in Texas, later joined by Kentucky and Mississippi.

States challenging Obama administration initiatives have frequently filed separate lawsuits making similar claims so the cases ultimately end up in multiple federal appeals courts, increasing the states’ chances of victory.

The Obama administration’s letter said transgender people are protected by prohibitions on sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies to employment, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which applies to federally funded schools. States collectively receive billions of dollars in federal education funding each year that can be taken away as a penalty for violating Title IX.

The states that are party to the lawsuit filed in May on Wednesday asked the judge handling that case to temporarily block the administration from enforcing its interpretation of federal law pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

The Justice Department in May sued North Carolina over a state law that requires people to use public bathrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates.

That law has spurred protests by companies, sports leagues and prominent musicians who have refused to play concerts in the state.

The case is Nebraska v. United States of America, U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, No. 4:16-cv-03117.