Top Justice Dept. officials have strong words for N.C. 'bathroom law' (Video: Reuters)

On Monday, there was a remarkable moment at the Department of Justice: two women of color who had personally experienced the pain of prejudice walked to the podium to announce the Justice Department’s discrimination lawsuit against the state of North Carolina.

The two top Justice Department officials – one the daughter of Indian immigrants and the other the granddaughter of a “dirt poor” sharecropper and minister in the deep South – linked the growing controversy over transgender access to restrooms in North Carolina to the civil rights battles of the 1960s.

“It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains and on public accommodations,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, a native of North Carolina, in perhaps the most impassioned speech she has given since taking the reins of the Justice Department last year. “We have moved beyond those dark days, but not without pain and suffering and an ongoing fight to keep moving forward. Let us write a different story this time.”

Lynch’s father, 84-year-old Lorenzo Lynch, is a retired fourth-generation Baptist minister who grew up in the segregated South where every aspect of his life was touched by Jim Crow laws. Black ministers driving to other states to preach could not stop and use the bathroom. Her grandfather, who had a third-grade education, would help hide people who got in trouble with the law but had no recourse under Jim Crow in the rural South, where Lynch once said that “there was no justice in the dark of night on a rural road.”

Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said that calling the new North Carolina law a bathroom bill “trivializes what this is really about.”

“The complaint we filed today speaks to public employees who feel afraid and stigmatized on the job,” Gupta said. “It speaks to students who feel like their campus treats them differently because of who they are. It speaks to sports fans who feel forced to choose between their gender identity and their identity as a Tar Heel. And 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’s parents immigrated to the United States from India in the late 1960s, but she spent some of her childhood in England and France because her father worked for an international company. She has recalled to reporters an incident when she was 4 and was in a McDonald’s in London with her parents and a grandmother visiting from India. A group of skinheads came in, yelled “Go home Pakis!” They then threw french fries and other food at Gupta and her family until Gupta, her parents and her grandmother left.

Gupta, a graduate of Yale University and New York University’s law school, has devoted her career to civil rights issues and criminal justice reform as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union. Lynch, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was a career prosecutor and U.S. attorney before becoming attorney general in April, 2015.

Lynch and Gupta are also clashing with North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) over his state’s 2013 voting law, one of the strictest in the country. A federal judge last month upheld the law, and Lynch said Monday that the Justice Department is joining civil rights groups to appeal his decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

Before Lynch and Gupta announced their lawsuit, McCrory sued the Justice Department on Monday morning, accusing the federal government of “baseless and blatant overreach.” The governor has repeatedly defended the state law, which he signed in March in response to a city ordinance in Charlotte that expanded civil rights protections for people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The new law requires transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificates.

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. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Citing federal laws, Gupta said the law sexually discriminates against transgender people, and its proponents are misinterpreting or making up facts about gender identity.

“Here are the facts,” Gupta said sternly. “Transgender men are men — they live, work and study as men. Transgender women are women — they live, work and study as women.”

Groups supporting the law and similar legislation across the country refer to them as “bathroom bills.” The groups have raised the concern that men would enter women’s restrooms for perverse or harmful reasons. McCrory said the issue will have affect not only North Carolina, but also other states across the country, and accused the government of “being a bully.”

After Lynch’s news conference, McCrory’s spokesman said the attorney general was “using divisive rhetoric.”

“Governor McCrory is appropriately seeking legal certainty to a complex issue impacting employers and students throughout the country,” said McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis.

Lynch made it clear Monday that North Carolina is at risk of losing millions in federal funding. North Carolina, for example, receives more than $4 billion in federal education funding each year, much of it in the form of student loans, and the Education Department is now reviewing whether to withhold that money.

“Let me speak now to the people of the great state, the beautiful state, my state of North Carolina,” Lynch said. “You’ve been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm, but that just is not the case. Instead, what this law does is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share.”