The Obama Administration has stepped up a national debate over transgender access to bathrooms by issuing a directive ordering public schools around the country to let students to use restrooms according to their gender identity.
The guidance, which is not legally binding, was issued Friday morning, amid a legal battle between the Department of Justice and North Carolina over a bathroom access law that civil rights advocates say discriminates against transgender people.
"There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex," US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement accompanying the directive.
The administration has warned schools that if they fail to comply with the administration's guidance, they could be hit with lawsuits or lose federal funding under Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in education institutions.
The Obama administration said in its guidance Friday that schools also can't ask students to undergo any medical testing or treatment, or to produce a birth certificate before allowing someone access to a bathroom corresponding to their gender identity.
"As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others' discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students," the directive says.
The directive was accompanied by a 19-page guidance for schools on emerging practices and policies to help support transgender students. The document provides guidance on issues like privacy, correct use of terminology and other resources for teachers and administrators.
The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, lauded the move as "groundbreaking."
"This is a truly significant moment not only for transgender young people but for all young people, sending a message that every student deserves to be treated fairly and supported by their teachers and schools," HRC President Chad Griffin said in a statement.
This week, tensions escalated between the federal government and North Carolina over the state's recently passed House Bill 2, which requires transgender people to use bathrooms designated to their biological sex. Both the state and DoJ have filed lawsuits over the controversial law.
While the Obama administration and LGBT activists cast the lawsuit as a civil rights issue, North Carolina and conservative voices have questioned the White House's interpretation of federal law. On Monday, Governor Pat McCrory argued that the Obama administration was inappropriately circumventing Congress on the issue, characterizing its efforts to intervene as "baseless and blatant overreach."
"I do not agree with [the Justice Department's] interpretation of federal law," McCory said, explaining North Carolina's lawsuit filed on Monday. "Ultimately, I think it's time for the US Congress to bring clarity to our national anti-discrimination provision under Title VII and Title IX."
But Lynch compared the North Carolina bill with Jim Crow laws and legislation prohibiting same-sex marriage, saying that the administration's action is "about a great deal more than bathrooms," but rather, "is about dignity and respect we afford our citizens."
"No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus," Education Secretary John B. King said in a statement Friday. "We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence."
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