UNC trapped between federal, state laws

Department of Justice tells university system to disavow North Carolina bathroom law

The University of North Carolina (UNC) system is stuck between the state's controversial bathroom law (HB2) and a federal directive to disavow it. 

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) directed UNC President Margaret Spellings and Gov. Pat McCroy (R) to denounce the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act by May 9 or risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.

The Obama administration says the law violates Title IX, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Violence Against Women Act. 


The law requires public colleges and facilities to segregate bathrooms by biological birth gender, meaning transgender people may not use restrooms that reflect their identities unless they have taken legal steps to change their birth certificates.

The law also updates which types of discrimination people are protected against statewide: religion, race, color, age, handicap, national origin, and biological sex as listed on a birth certificate. And it prevents local governments from passing their own antidiscrimination laws—which could expand that definition.

Private companies and businesses may keep and develop their own nondiscrimination policies. However, under the law, lawsuits cannot challenge those policies in state court—they will be regulated to the federal system.

The law also prohibits cities and counties from setting minimum wage floors for private companies.

UNC told to ignore law

In April, Spellings sent a memo to UNC chancellors with notes on how to comply with the law, sparking backlash from LGBT advocates and students. Spellings says her memorandum was "misinterpreted as an endorsement of the law ... We will not tolerate any sort of harassing or discriminatory behavior on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation." 

Creating gender-inclusive restrooms on campus

The DOJ's top civil rights lawyer, Vanita Gupta, replied to Spellings that her promise to protect LGBT students "cannot be reconciled with UNC's limitations on bathroom access for transgender individuals on UNC campuses."

Gupta asked Spelling retract her earlier memo and tell "the public, including UNC students, employees, and third parties, that, in accordance with federal law, individuals permitted to access UNC restrooms and other facilities consistent with their gender identity" (Brown, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 5/5). 

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