Under the Dome

Groups criticize UNC system for following House Bill 2

UNC system President Margaret Spellings has issued guidance to chancellors about how to comply with the new law known as House Bill 2, and gay rights advocacy groups were quick to denounce the university’s stance.

“It’s incredibly disappointing that the University of North Carolina has concluded it is required to follow this discriminatory measure at the expense of the privacy, safety, and well being of its students and employees, particularly those who are transgender,” said a joint statement Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North Carolina, Lambda Legal and Equality NC. “By requiring people to use restrooms that do not correspond to their gender identity, this policy not only endangers and discriminates against transgender people – it also violates federal law.”

Since the controversial law was passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, university officials have tried to walk a fine line, saying they were studying the law for its impact while expressing support for the LGBTQ community.

Spellings’ memo says campuses aren’t required to change their nondiscrimination policies, but must designate, with signage, that multi-stalled bathrooms and changing facilities are for use by a single biological gender. Single-occupancy bathrooms can remain gender-neutral.

“Like all public agencies, the University is required to fulfill its obligations under the law unless or until the court directs otherwise,” said Spellings’ memo, dated April 5.

The memo further says the university system will work with the Attorney General’s Office “to make arrangements for counsel in the lawsuit” that is challenging the law. The suit was brought by Lambda Legal and the ACLU on behalf of a UNC-Chapel Hill employee, a UNC-Greensboro student and a North Carolina Central University law professor.

Attorney General Roy Cooper has refused to defend the state against the lawsuit, which challenges the constitutionality of the new law.

Just after the lawsuit was filed last month, Spellings issued a statement, saying, “I want to underscore UNC’s long-held commitment to making sure that the University of North Carolina and its campuses are welcoming, inclusive and safe places for students, faculty, and staff of all backgrounds, beliefs and identities. I know that many across the UNC system are concerned about the implications of HB2.”

Spellings also said the university would “stand ready to work with the Governor and General Assembly as the lawsuit progresses.”

The new president, who began the job last month, had already faced questions related to LGBT issues, based on a controversy early in her tenure as U.S. education secretary for former President George W. Bush. In 2005, Spellings took aim at PBS for an episode of an animated children’s show, “Postcards from Buster,” that portrayed gay parents.

In October, when asked about the flap, she said the question was not on her particular view of “those lifestyles,” but on the use of taxpayer dollars for the show. She later apologized for the use of the phrase “those lifestyles,” but pointed out that she had repeated the words that a reporter used when posing the question. UNC-Chapel Hill’s Faculty Council later passed a resolution calling on Spellings to support academic initiatives related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues.

On Thursday, the UNC employee plaintiff, Joaquín Carcaño, issued a statement criticizing the university’s position. “Not only does this policy fail to protect my rights as a loyal and hard-working employee and make it harder for me to do my job, it sides with ignorance and fear,” said Carcaño, who is a transgender man. “All I want is to use the appropriate restroom, in peace, just like everyone else. But now I am put in the terrible position of either going into the women’s room, where I don’t belong and am uncomfortable, or breaking the law.”

Spellings’ memo pointed out that House Bill 2 contains no provisions for enforcement of the bathroom and locker room requirements.

The Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization, said Thursday that Spellings’ guidance to the UNC system campuses amounted to an order to violate federal laws against discrimination. That, the group said, puts UNC at risk of losing federal funding under the Title IX discrimination law.

“All students have a right to learn without fear of discrimination, and President Spellings has an obligation to protect them,” the group’s president, Chad Griffin, said in a statement. “We urge her to reverse this decision, and stand up to the bullies who are targeting students simply for who they are.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill