How The Fight Over North Carolina’s Bathroom Law Could End Up Hurting Domestic Violence Victims

By defending the law, the state is jeopardizing services that are crucial to vulnerable populations, including transgender people.
The millions of dollars that North Carolina receives for vital programs is at stake as its governor defends his bathroom bill
The millions of dollars that North Carolina receives for vital programs is at stake as its governor defends his bathroom bill.

WASHINGTON -- By suing the federal government to protect his state's law policing transgender individuals' bathroom choices, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) isn't just risking big business, his state's reputation and his political future. He's also risking millions of dollars in federal funds that pay for state programs aimed at addressing domestic violence and sexual assault -- programs that are particularly crucial to transgender individuals, who face high rates of violence.

The Justice Department warned McCrory last week that the bathroom bill -- which bars transgender people from using public restrooms that don't correspond with the sex on their birth certificates -- violates multiple federal laws, including the Violence Against Women Act. That law, which was reauthorized in 2013, provides federal money for programs that combat sexual assault and domestic violence. VAWA explicitly bans fund recipients from discriminating on the basis of "actual or perceived" gender identity or sexual orientation.

McCrory sued the Justice Department, arguing that the law does not discriminate against transgender people, and does not violate VAWA and other laws. The Justice Department disagreed, and countersued.

Supporters of HB2 have argued the law protects women and children who use public facilities from male intruders. But by defending the law, the state is jeopardizing services that are crucial to vulnerable populations, including transgender people. Half of transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives, according to 2005 reports cited by the Justice Department.

"The fact that the DOJ would even consider threatening federal funds for such services over a new and misguided interpretation of federal law is ludicrous," said Ricky Diaz, a spokesman for McCrory's re-election campaign. "It also goes to show you that DOJ's action isn't about protecting people, it's about imposing its political agenda on the rest of America."

Diaz added, "The governor took the responsible approach by suing the federal government to ensure that North Carolina continues to receive federal funding until the courts clarify the law."

In 2015, state and local entities in North Carolina received about $5 million in grants under VAWA, according to data analyzed by researchers at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, a think tank dedicated to research on sexual orientation and gender identity law.

That number includes over $420,000 that went to sexual assault services program funding at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and almost $300,000 to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for reducing sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking on campus, said Christy Mallory, one of the authors of the report.

"Our DOJ funds could be in jeopardy," said Dana Mangum, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit. She added that cutting funding would "significantly reduce" their ability to do domestic violence training.

Aside from the law putting resources for sex abuse victims at risk, advocates for rape and domestic violence survivors oppose HB 2. More than 250 of such groups signed a statement last month saying that "falsehoods" about sex abuse perpetuated by conservative lawmakers were causing the needs of rape survivors to be "obscured in order to push a political agenda that does nothing to serve and protect victims and potential victims."

By going up against the feds, McCrory is also risking up to $4.7 billion annually in federal education funding, according to the Williams Institute report. The process to remove these funds is not simple. The lawsuit alone could take years if the case is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. And Debora Osgood, who spent 25 years with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, noted the OCR never attempted to pull funds during her time there. If any part of the federal government actually moved forward on trying to strip the state of education funding, it would go through a “cumbersome process,” she said. 

There is much more money at stake from the Education Department than the Justice Department. However, experts believe it's unlikely that the Education Department funding will be stripped, since this action would essentially kill the state's public colleges because no student could get federal financial aid. Federal funding at the K-12 level also covers the salaries of about 7,700 employees, or 7.4 percent of all K-12 personnel in the Tar Heel State.

Pulling all federal funding for schools is "such a thermonuclear option," said Barmak Nassirian, a federal lobbyist for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "One would have to assume that things would be resolved way in advance of reaching that point."