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Justice Department Files Complaint Against North Carolina Over Bathroom Law


Just a few hours after North Carolina went to court, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced a lawsuit of her own against the state and its leaders.


LORETTA LYNCH: They 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.

SHAPIRO: And in its lawsuit, the U.S. Justice Department accuses the state of engaging in a pattern of sex discrimination. With us to talk about the case is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: What is this basis for this new Justice Department suit?

JOHNSON: The Justice Department is suing the state, the governor and the University. And DOJ is essentially asking, Ari, for a federal judge to make clear that the U.S. interpretation of the civil rights laws are the ones that should prevail here. There are a few bases for the lawsuit. DOJ cites the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - Title VII bars sex discrimination in the workplace, Title IX of an education statute that prohibits sex determination at school. And DOJ says this North Carolina law flatly discriminates because it treats workers who are transgender differently than other employees. Same when it goes to education.

SHAPIRO: And North Carolina's governor says the Justice Department is overreaching and does not have the authority to interpret the law in this way. How does the Obama administration respond to that?

JOHNSON: There's a remarkable passage in this DOJ lawsuit, Ari. DOJ says the law stigmatizes and singles out transgender people. It isolates and excludes them, and it perpetuates a sense they are not worthy of equal treatment and respect. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said this at her news conference.


LYNCH: 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.

JOHNSON: So that problem she didn't quite mention was this notion that people are preying on children in bathrooms, which there's very little evidence of so far. Under the Justice Department legal analysis, gender identity and transgender status aren't linked to one sex, so this is all sex discrimination. And the Obama Justice Department signaled it believed this as far back as December 2014, when then Attorney General Eric Holder sent out a memo to all federal prosecutors laying the groundwork for this.

SHAPIRO: What is the legal precedent here? What have courts said about this issue in the past?

JOHNSON: So just two weeks ago, a federal appeals court in the 4th Circuit ruled on behalf of a transgender student, allowing that student's discrimination lawsuit to proceed. The student was born female and was banned from the boys' bathroom in high school. The U.S. Education Department backed the student. And believe it or not, Ari, this 4th Circuit appeals court, the territory for this court, covers not just Virginia but also the state of North Carolina - powerful evidence the Justice Department cited today.

SHAPIRO: This is the second time we have seen this Justice Department come out swinging on civil rights in just a year. Not long before this, we were looking at Ferguson, Mo. over discriminatory policing there. What's going on?

JOHNSON: In many ways, the legacy of this Obama Justice Department is a civil rights legacy. Loretta Lynch, the attorney general, got unusually personal today. She grew up in North Carolina as a young black woman. And she talked about back in those days not being able to use certain bathrooms, certain water fountains. She cast this fight today for transgender rights in that same arch of justice. And she said that state-sponsored discrimination never succeeds. It just looks bad in hindsight.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.