WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama’s administration told schools across America on Friday (Saturday in Manila) they must let transgender students use the bathroom of their choice, taking an intensifying battle over civil rights to the national stage.
Hailed by activists as a breakthrough, the move triggered an instant backlash from conservatives who perceive it as a threat to children’s well being, with a top Texas official refusing to comply with Obama’s “blackmail.”
In a letter to public school districts and universities, the Justice and Education Departments laid out guidelines on creating a safe environment for transgender students, in accordance with existing laws on discrimination.
“There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the top US lawyer who delivered a powerful speech in support of transgender Americans earlier this week.
“No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus,” added Education Secretary John King.
In particular, the letter asks schools to allow transgender students access to bathrooms matching their gender identity—rather than the sex on their birth certificate.
Although non-binding, schools that fail to comply with the directive could potentially face lawsuits or reduced federal aid.
The school guidelines come as the federal government is embroiled in a pitched legal battle with the state of North Carolina over a law requiring transgender people to use public restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate. Both the state and the Obama administration have filed dueling lawsuits.
Rights groups hailed the administration’s latest move.
Human rights campaign president Chad Griffin said the “groundbreaking” guidelines marked “a truly significant moment not only for transgender young people but for all young people.”
But conservative politicians and groups were swift in condemning the move.
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory called for federal courts and the US Congress to “intercede to stop this massive executive branch overreach, which clearly oversteps constitutional authority.”
In Texas, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said his state was ready to forfeit billions of dollars in federal aid—most of it for free breakfast and lunch programs for students from financially disadvantaged families—rather than comply with the administration.
“So Barack Obama, if schools don’t knuckle down to force girls showering with boys and force eight-year-old girls to have to endure boys coming into their bathroom, he’s taking money from the poorest of the poor,” Patrick told reporters.