By Daniel Wiessner
(Reuters) - Ten states including Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio sued the Obama administration on Friday, saying the federal government does not have the power to tell states that transgender people must be allowed to use public bathrooms that conform with their gender identity.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, takes issue with a May 13 letter sent by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education to states warning them that they could lose federal funding if they required transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex. The lawsuit says the Obama administration's move was an attempt to rewrite federal civil rights laws that do not apply to transgender people.
It was filed by the attorneys general of the 10 states, which also include Arkansas, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming.
“When a federal agency takes such unilateral action in an attempt to change the meaning of established law, it leaves state and local authorities with no other option than to pursue legal clarity in federal court,” Nebraska's attorney general, Doug Peterson, a Republican, said in a statement.
The Justice Department did not immediately have a comment.
The lawsuit is the latest salvo in a nationwide debate over rights for transgender people.
Officials from Texas, Wisconsin and nine other states on May 25 filed a nearly identical lawsuit in federal court in Texas, later joined by Kentucky and Mississippi.
States challenging Obama administration initiatives have frequently filed separate lawsuits making similar claims so the cases ultimately end up in multiple federal appeals courts, increasing the states' chances of victory.
The Obama administration’s letter said transgender people are protected by prohibitions on sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies to employment, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which applies to federally funded schools. States collectively receive billions of dollars in federal education funding each year that can be taken away as a penalty for violating Title IX.
The states that are party to the lawsuit filed in May on Wednesday asked the judge handling that case to temporarily block the administration from enforcing its interpretation of federal law pending the outcome of the lawsuit.
The Justice Department in May sued North Carolina over a state law that requires people to use public bathrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates.
That law has spurred protests by companies, sports leagues and prominent musicians who have refused to play concerts in the state.
The case is Nebraska v. United States of America, U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, No. 4:16-cv-03117.
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, N.Y.; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Leslie Adler)