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North Carolina, Justice Department Countersue Over 'Bathroom Law'


And let's turn to that confrontation between the Department of Justice and the state of North Carolina. Each filed lawsuits against the other yesterday over a law known as House Bill Two. That state law says government buildings plus public schools and universities must restrict bathrooms and locker rooms according to one's sex on a birth certificate. Yesterday, North Carolina's Republican Gov. Patrick McCrory announced his lawsuit, saying the Justice Department lacks the authority to intervene.


PAT MCCRORY: We believe a court, rather than a federal agency, should tell our state, our nation and employers across the country what the law requires.

GREENE: And by afternoon, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch answered with a federal lawsuit against the state, saying HB2 violates the Civil Rights Act.


LORETTA LYNCH: This law provides no benefit to society, and all it does is harm innocent Americans.

GREENE: We spoke this morning with professor Ted Shaw. He is head of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill. We asked him to help us understand exactly what's being debated when it comes to civil rights. It sounds like discrimination is against federal law when it comes to genders. Is the central question now whether gender should be interpreted as including the gender one chooses for theirself and not the sex based on the birth certificate? Is that what's really in question here?

TED SHAW: That certainly is in question. And I guess that transgender people would say that they don't really choose their gender, that their gender is a matter of both biology but some other matters that go beyond genitalia. But that's - yeah, that's at the core of this confrontation.

GREENE: Now the state of North Carolina is basically accusing the Obama administration of trying to rewrite laws, suggesting that this should be left to Congress and that the Obama administration has an agenda here that they're trying to put forth. I mean, does the state have an argument there?

SHAW: Well, the state makes an argument, and how strong that argument is is up for grabs. The state cites federal court decisions that say that gender does not include sexual orientation or transgender and that transgender people are not a protected classification of people under federal civil rights laws. So - and it's part of the culture wars that have been going on. For people who are civil rights advocates, they've been clear for some time now that discrimination on the basis of who and what people are goes against our most basic and fundamental laws. And even the Supreme Court, which has been a conservative Supreme Court, has, of course, moved with respect to sexual orientation to ban discrimination in the context of marriage.

GREENE: Well, professor, if I might just ask you about an opinion piece that you wrote for the Charlotte Observer, you said your vision for civil rights has shifted over time and that there was a time when you would've watched from the sidelines discrimination against LGBT people and thought that it wasn't your battle. What's changed now?

SHAW: Well, when I wrote that, what I meant was that I was focused on the battles on behalf of African-Americans. Over time, as a civil rights lawyer, I came to realize that we have to be opposed to the subordination of people because of who and what they are, even if we're not part of that group. But I simply think that discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation and, in this instance, specifically transgender people, is simply wrong. It should be wrong. It's a matter of law. And I think as a country, we've been growing in our understanding of our values and principles with respect to discrimination and how we treat our fellow citizens and how we want to be treated ourselves, all of us, whether it's on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, age, our religion, on and on. It's just growth.

GREENE: When you say it's just growth, it makes me want to ask you if conversations around, you know, same-sex marriage that we've seen in recent years and the Supreme Court decision on that and the conversations around this law, I mean, are - as sensitive and infuriating as some of these conversations can be to some people on both sides, I mean, is there an argument that these conversations are just good for society to have as time evolves?

SHAW: Well, I think these conversations are good to have. I think they're important to have as we deepen our understanding of what our national values and principles are. The question to me isn't whether we have these conversations. It's how we have these conversations. And I guess what disturbs me - I know what disturbs me - is when some people are treated as if they are not legitimate members of our society. That troubles me and its tone and its tenor. So that's part of a larger problem that we're having as a nation in this strange time in which we find ourselves.

GREENE: OK, we've been speaking with Ted Shaw. He's a distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, where he also directs the Center for Civil Rights. Professor, thanks so much for joining us this morning.

SHAW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.