By Letitia Stein
(Reuters) - Mississippi's schools chief backed away on Wednesday from federal guidance to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice amid pushback from state leaders.
Education superintendent Carey Wright said in a statement that her department would "follow the lead of state leadership and take no action at this time."
The department previously said it intended to follow the non-binding guidance issued to U.S. schools by the Obama administration last week. In a statement on Friday, the department said "a safe and caring school environment is critical to a student’s ability to learn and achieve."
In response, Mississippi Republican Governor Phil Bryant urged state education officials to disregard the guidance, which comes at a time of escalating tension over the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
"Because these decisions are better left to the states, and not made at the point of a federal bayonet, Mississippi's public schools should not participate in the president's social experiment,” Bryant said in a statement on Friday.
The Obama administration's letter to U.S. schools has received mixed response. Advocates for transgender students have cheered the directive, while conservatives have vowed to fight the administration's position that U.S. laws against sex discrimination in schools include gender identity.
The debate is especially heated in Mississippi, which recently passed a law seen as discriminatory to LGBT rights, allowing people to deny wedding services to same-sex couples based on religious objections. Bryant signed the wide-ranging measure, calling it necessary to protect religious beliefs. Due to take effect in July, the law faces a legal challenge.
(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Leslie Adler)