WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal authorities told North Carolina's governor on Wednesday that a new state law limiting restroom access for transgender people violates the U.S. Civil Rights Act.
In a letter to Republican Governor Pat McCrory the Justice Department said North Carolina was "engaging in a pattern or practice of discrimination against transgender state employees." The letter, seen by Reuters, said the state had until Monday to say whether it would remedy the violations.
McCrory said in a statement that his office will review the letter "to determine the next steps."
"The right and expectation of privacy in one of the most private areas of our personal lives is now in jeopardy," McCrory said.
Republican state legislative leaders said they still supported the law despite the federal warning.
In March, North Carolina became the first U.S. state to require transgender people to use restrooms in public buildings and schools that match the sex on their birth certificate, not their gender identity.
The law thrust North Carolina into the center of a debate over equality, privacy and religious freedom in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that legalized same-sex marriage.
Prominent entertainers canceled performances in the state to protest the law, associations relocated conventions and companies halted projects that would create jobs in the state.
State legislative leaders, who say the measure protects women and children from sexual predators in bathrooms, reiterated their support after the notice from Democratic President Barack Obama's administration.
"This is a gross overreach by the Obama Justice Department that deserves to be struck down in federal court," state Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, said in a statement.
The state law is being challenged in federal court by critics including the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.
"It is now clearer than ever that this discriminatory law violates civil rights protections and jeopardizes billions of dollars in federal funds for North Carolina," said a joint statement from the activist groups in response to the Justice Department's letter.
Federal officials are asking North Carolina's governor to refrain from enforcing the law.
If he does not comply, a Justice Department official said the agency preferred to continue federal funding to the state, and had other options to enforce the order.
The Justice Department told the governor it sent similar letters warning the state's Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina that the state law violated federal statutes applying to their operations.
(Reporting by Julia Edwards and Julia Harte in Washington and Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Writing by Letitia Stein and Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Alan Crosby and David Gregorio)