Attorney general: Civil rights key to suit against LGBT law

Loretta E. Lynch, Sylvia Burwell, James Comey
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, center, with Health and Human Service (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Burwell, left, and FBI Director James Comey, speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Thursday, June 18, 2015. The government says 243 people have been charged in health care fraud sweeps around the country. That includes doctors, nurses and pharmacy owners accused of bilking Medicare and Medicaid. Combining all the cases, fraudulent billings allegedly totaled some $712 million. Lynch says the defendants billed for equipment that wasn't provided, care that wasn't needed, and services that weren't rendered. While the individual cases may be unrelated, law enforcement agencies often coordinate the announcement of health fraud charges and arrests to send a message to fraudsters and the general public alike. Health care fraud costs tens of billions of dollars annually. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Civil rights laws exist for anyone victimized because of a physical characteristic they can’t control, and that’s why the U.S. Justice Department challenged a North Carolina law that blocks some legal protections for LGBT citizens, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Tuesday.

Lynch’s comments came in response to criticism hours earlier by conservative black pastors and civil rights leaders. They blasted the attorney general for comparing House Bill 2 to Jim Crow laws that segregated blacks to inferior education and opportunities for nearly a century.

Lynch was visiting her native state for the first time since the Justice Department and North Carolina’s top Republican leaders filed competing lawsuits two weeks ago.

North Carolina’s new law excludes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from state anti-discrimination protection and bars local governments from adopting their own anti-bias measures. The Justice Department lawsuit and the law’s supporters focused largely on provisions requiring transgender people to use public restrooms and showers corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate.

Defenders of the law have argued that it is needed to protect people from being molested in bathrooms by men posing as transgender women. Lynch said earlier this month supporters of the law invented a problem “as a pretext for discrimination and harassment.”

While pushing for equal civil rights in North Carolina has historically meant ending discrimination against black Americans, civil rights laws are meant to cover everyone, Lynch said.

“So certainly I respect the experience of those who have toiled in the vineyards of the civil rights movement,” she said, “when you look at the nature and purpose of the movement, the nature and purpose of the message of those who led it, it is about civil rights, human rights and equality for all.”

Clarence Henderson was one of those criticizing Lynch. Henderson was involved in the first days of the 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro that energized the civil rights movement. He said transgender people are acting on their self-expressed sense of gender, not the unchangeable facts of how they were born.

“If you were born a man, that’s who you are. If you were born a female, that’s who you are. So when I hear this transgender — and I guess they would call it a movement — try to impart themselves into the civil rights movement, I am highly offended,” Henderson said during a news conference outside the state’s antebellum Capitol building in Raleigh.

Lynch said she hasn’t spoken to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, nor decided at what point the Obama Administration might seek to withhold federal funds under the legal theory the North Carolina law violates civil rights laws states promise to uphold.

Fayetteville is one of six cities where Lynch is highlighting elements of a report last year by President Barack Obama’s policing task force. The panel was created in response to upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere that exposed the gulf between police agencies and their communities.

Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock in 2014 asked the U.S. Justice Department for input on how it could operate better. The agency made dozens of suggestions in December.

Lynch praised Fayetteville’s police for improving public transparency and responsiveness. More police departments are embracing changes that head off trouble, Lynch said.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio .

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