On May 9, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced dueling lawsuits regarding HB2, a law that requires people to use public restrooms according to the sex they were assigned at birth, rather than the one they identify with. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

North Carolina and the Justice Department announced dueling lawsuits Monday over the state’s “bathroom bill,” which has become the epicenter of a larger fight over transgender rights.

The two complaints, filed several hours apart, took opposing sides in the debate over the law, which bans transgender people from using bathrooms that don’t match the gender on their birth certificates. While the state said its law does not discriminate against transgender people or treat transgender employees differently from non-transgender employees, the Justice Department’s civil rights office said the measure is discriminatory and violates civil rights.

“This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said during a news conference after the Justice Department’s lawsuit was filed. “This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them.”

The lawsuits escalate tensions over a law that has already resulted in boycotts of North Carolina by corporations and threats from the federal government that billions of dollars in annual funding could be withheld.

The Justice Department announced May 9 that it was filing a countersuit against the state of North Carolina, following a lawsuit by the state seeking to enforce the so-called "bathroom bill." (Reuters)

The fight over the “bathroom bill” also marks the latest front in a growing war between North Carolina and the federal government, which has sued the state over a law adding several restrictions on voters.

In his lawsuit Monday against the Justice Department, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) accused the federal government of “baseless and blatant overreach.”

The governor has repeatedly defended the state law, which he signed in March, as a necessary response to a Charlotte city ordinance that expanded civil rights protections for people based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

But Lynch on Monday linked the bill with a dark legacy that included Jim Crow laws and resistance to the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

“It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains and on public accommodations keeping people out based upon a distinction without a difference,” Lynch, a North Carolina native, said during her unusually impassioned remarks.

Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said Monday that calling the law a “bathroom bill,” as it has become commonly known, “trivializes” the measure’s true impact, which she said could affect state employees, students and sports fans alike.

“It speaks to all of us who have ever been made to feel inferior — like somehow we just don’t belong in our community, like somehow we just don’t fit in,” Gupta said. “Let me reassure every transgender individual, right here in America, that you belong just as you are.”

Five days ago, the Justice Department sent a letter to McCrory and other public officials calling on them to abandon the law because it violated federal civil rights statutes. Gupta gave the governor until the close of business Monday to respond.

Notably absent from McCrory’s complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, was Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina System, who had also received a letter from the Justice Department relating to the law.

North Carolina receives more than $4 billion in federal education funding each year, much of it in the form of student loans, and the Education Department has said it is reviewing whether to withhold that money because of the bathroom law. The government has withheld funds from schools before over civil rights issues, including when dozens of districts in Southern states refused to desegregate in the 1960s.

The Justice Department’s lawsuit, in addition to naming the state of North Carolina, also includes the state’s department of public safety, and the University of North Carolina and the school’s board of governors.

In a letter to Gupta on Monday, Spellings said the UNC System takes seriously “its obligations to comply with federal non-discrimination statutes” and had scheduled a special meeting of its board of governors for Tuesday afternoon. Spellings said in a statement that the university “is truly caught in the middle” — stuck between adhering to state law and being a welcoming home for its students — and said this meeting Tuesday would help determine UNC’s next steps.

The North Carolina law 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 North Carolina, and state officials said these expansions would have brought millions of dollars to local economies.

The National Basketball Association has said it will move the All-Star Game from Charlotte next season if the law is not changed, while tourism agencies have said the legislation has cost the state millions in lost business — and possibly much more if other groups cancel events.

The White House was critical of North Carolina’s decision Monday, with Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, saying during a briefing that the state was “asserting that this mean-spirited law is somehow consistent with the Civil Rights Act and with our values.” He said he did not know of any way the lawsuit had changed the reviews that several federal agencies are conducting to consider withholding funding to North Carolina.

McCrory said he had asked the Justice Department for an extension to the “unrealistic” Monday deadline and was turned down unless he made a statement agreeing that the measure was 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.”

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. He said Monday that McCrory was “pouring gas on the fire that he lit” by filing a lawsuit against the federal government.

“Instead of doing what’s right for our state, he’s doubling down on what he knows he did wrong,” Cooper said in a video message Monday. “Enough is enough.”

Also Monday, the top Republicans in the North Carolina legislature — Sen. Phil Berger, president pro tempore of the  Senate, and Rep. Tim Moore, speaker of the House  — filed their own lawsuit against the Justice Department, arguing that the federal agency was violating the 10th Amendment by trying to “impose novel and unforeseen interpretations” of civil rights statutes.

“It’s unacceptable for the Obama administration to try to intimidate North Carolina taxpayers into accepting their radical reinterpretation of a law meant to protect women from discrimination into a law that would actually deny women their right to basic safety and privacy,” Berger and Moore said in a statement.

McCrory said Monday that 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, he said that this has broad implications, stating: “This is not just a North Carolina issue. This is now a national issue.”

Three groups challenging the bathroom measure in federal court — the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina and Lambda Legal — released a statement saying that McCrory “doubled down on discrimination” against transgender people with his suit Monday.

“Transgender people work for the state of North Carolina, attend school in North Carolina, and are a part of every community across the state,” the groups said in their statement. “It is unconscionable that the government is placing a target on their backs to advance this discriminatory political agenda. Lawsuits are normally filed to stop discrimination — not to continue it.”

Niraj Chokshi, Emma Brown and David Nakamura contributed to this report.

Further reading:

How is bathroom access for transgender people a form of sex discrimination?

‘Bathroom law’ puts North Carolina governor in crossfire of GOP civil war