Politics & Government

Bevin joins transgender bathroom lawsuit after calling issue ‘nonsense’ in 2015

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce dinner on Jan. 7 at Heritage Hall in Lexington.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce dinner on Jan. 7 at Heritage Hall in Lexington. Associated Press

Though Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin declared in December he has no interest in “worrying about who uses which bathroom in the public schools,” he directed his administration Friday to join a lawsuit challenging federal guidelines for accommodating transgender students in bathrooms.

In announcing that Kentucky will join 11 other states in challenging the Obama administration, the Republican governor said “the federal government has no authority to dictate local school districts’ bathroom and locker room policies.”

“The Obama Administration’s transgender policy ‘guidelines’ are an absurd federal overreach into a local issue,” Bevin said.

Bevin also took a swipe at Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, saying it’s unfortunate that Beshear “is unwilling to protect Kentucky’s control over local issues.”

Beshear, who generally files lawsuits on behalf of the state, said Bevin’s statement is “entirely false” and that his office has been closely reviewing the matter.

“On the day the federal government issued its guidance, the governor stated he was researching legal options,” Beshear said. “I expected to be consulted on those options, but my office has not received a single phone call from the governor or his attorneys on this matter.”

He added: “Sadly, this is another example of the governor’s office playing politics instead of trying to work with us.”

Five months ago, Bevin said the issue of where transgender students use the bathroom is “nonsense.”

“If people want to spend all the time in Frankfort worrying about who uses which bathroom in the public schools, that day is over,” Bevin said Dec. 13, less than a week after taking office, during a speech at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce legislative preview conference in Lexington.

“I’m just telling you right now. I have no tolerance or interest in that kind of nonsense. None,” Bevin said. “Those things matter to some but they sure don’t matter relative to everything else that needs to be addressed in this state. We are going to prioritize. We are going to have a sense of purpose.”

Asked why Bevin changed his mind on the issue and now considers it important, Bevin spokeswoman Jessica Ditto responded: “The federal directive. The federal overreach and the public funding involved.”

Saying society must protect vulnerable citizens, President Barack Obama issued a directive to school districts on May 13 to allow transgender students to use restrooms and other facilities that match their gender identities.

The directive does not carry the force of law, but brings with it an implied threat that non-compliant schools could lose federal funding.

Other states that have joined the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, include Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin, as well as the Arizona Department of Education and Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage. All but two of the states involved in the suit are run by Republican governors.

The lawsuit was filed against the Justice Department, the Education Department, the Labor Department and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as officials with these departments.

The Obama administration’s directive came soon after the U.S. Justice Department and North Carolina filed differing lawsuits on a law in that state that banned transgender people from using restrooms that don’t match the gender on their birth certificates.

In Kentucky’s 2015 General Assembly, the Senate approved a bill limiting transgender students to school bathrooms that match their biological sex or to accommodations such as a unisex bathroom. The measure then died in a House committee.

Bevin’s action drew immediate criticism and praise Friday from advocates on both sides of the issue.

“We are deeply disappointed that Gov. Bevin has decided to side with the wrong side of history,” said Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign.

Amber Duke, a spokeswoman for ACLU of Kentucky, said Bevin “is sending a troubling message to young transgender Kentuckians and adults who simply seek to live their lives free from discrimination.”

She said Obama’s guidelines simply clarify existing anti-discrimination laws “in light of laws popping up across the country and also requests from school districts trying to develop inclusive policies.”

“In schools and businesses across the country, and here in the commonwealth, transgender people have been protected from discrimination, including in restrooms and locker rooms, for years and even decades,” Duke said. “There have been no disruptions, increases in public safety incidents, or invasions of privacy related to those protections.”

Martin Cothran, a spokesman for the Lexington-based The Family Foundation, said Beshear “seems to have something other than the best interests of Kentuckians at heart.

“We are thankful that we have a governor who is joining with other states to defend the right of local schools to figure out their own policies on bathroom and locker room facilities without the unwelcome and unhelpful intervention of politically-motivated federal bureaucrats,” Cothran said.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, commended Bevin for joining the lawsuit. He also urged Beshear and House and Senate Democrats to support the federal lawsuit “to protect local control of Kentucky schools from federal overreach and Tenth Amendment violations.”

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198, @BGPolitics