RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The debate in North Carolina over civil rights protections for LGBT people is going national. Today, the Obama administration will inform school districts throughout the country that they must allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. The administration acknowledges that this is quote, "new terrain for most people." It says it wants to help school districts avoid running afoul of civil rights laws. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to talk about this. Good morning.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: OK. So the Justice Department is already in a legal fight with North Carolina over what's come to be known as that state's bathroom law. By taking this to all 50 states, the administration - what? - it seems to be upping the ante.
HORSLEY: Well, it certainly looks that way. You know, all this week we've been talking about North Carolina's HB2. And among other things, that so-called bathroom law requires people in public buildings to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate. The federal government challenged that law in court this week.
And in announcing that lawsuit, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who is a North Carolina native, spoke directly to transgender people. She said, we see you. We stand with you. And we'll do everything we can to protect you going forward. Today, the administration is extending that message to schools not just in North Carolina, but across the country. Some will see that as the administration spoiling for a fight, but the Justice and Education Departments say they're just trying to provide some guidance to the many parents and school districts that have raised questions about this area of civil rights law.
MONTAGNE: Well, elaborate for us on what this guidance is.
HORSLEY: Under federal law of Title IX, schools that get federal funding are not allowed to discriminate against students on the basis of sex. The guidance going out to school districts today makes it clear that as far as the Justice Department and the Education Department are concerned, that word, sex, includes gender identity. Now, that's not a new position for the federal government. They've said that before, but the message is getting amplified this week by the North Carolina controversy. And the administration's making it very clear to school districts, if they discriminate against transgender students, they will be considered in violation of Title IX. And they could be at risk of losing federal funding.
MONTAGNE: And what does this mean in practical terms?
HORSLEY: Well, there are a variety of different obligations that school districts have. They're supposed to respond promptly if transgender students are harassed. They're supposed to safeguard transgender students' privacy. They're supposed to use the proper pronouns. But you know, the question of the day, or the week, seems to be about bathrooms and locker rooms.
And here, the administration's guidance is very clear. A school must allow transgender students to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity. A school cannot require transgender students to use individual bathrooms or locker rooms if other students are not required to do so. However, schools can offer individual restrooms to all students.
MONTAGNE: And - so bring us back to the court fight with North Carolina. What are the implications of today's letter?
HORSLEY: Well, that court battle goes forward. And I should say the administration's interpretation that the word sex in Title IX also covers gender identity is just that. It's the administration's interpretation. Courts could come to a different conclusion. While that legal fight's playing out though, the administration's trying to establish some favorable facts on the ground. And in addition to its dear colleague letter going out today, the Education Department has produced a 25-page booklet outlining sort of best practices that other school districts have used that districts could turn to as sort of a guide if they want to emulate.
MONTAGNE: Scott, thanks very much.
HORSLEY: It's my pleasure, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.
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