Washington: President Barack Obama's administration wrote to schools across America on Friday telling them transgender students must be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice, firing the latest salvo in a politically-explosive battle over civil rights.
The move triggered an immediate backlash from some conservatives, with a top Texas official refusing to comply with what he called Obama's "blackmail."
In a letter to public school districts and universities, the Justice and Education Departments set out how to prevent discrimination against transgender students and end what Attorney General Loretta Lynch described as "unjust" policies.
"No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus," said Education Secretary John King.
In particular, the directive asks schools to allow transgender students access to bathroom facilities that correspond to their gender identity -- rather than the sex on their birth certificate.
Although non-binding, schools that fail to comply with the administration's guidance could potentially face lawsuits or reduced federal aid.
The school guidelines come as the federal government is embroiled in a pitched legal battle in North Carolina over a state law requiring transgender people to use public restrooms corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate. Both the state and the administration have filed dueling lawsuits.
Gay rights groups hailed the administration's latest move.
Human rights campaign president Chad Griffin said the "groundbreaking" guidelines "underscore the Obama administration's position that discriminating against transgender students is flat-out against the law."
"This is a truly significant moment not only for transgender young people but for all young people, sending a message that every student deserves to be treated fairly and supported by their teachers and schools," Griffin added.
HRC legal director Sarah Warbelow stressed that transgender youths face "heightened risk of experiencing violence, bullying and harassment."
Reacting to Friday's school directive, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory called for federal courts and the US Congress to "intercede to stop this massive executive branch overreach, which clearly oversteps constitutional authority."
"Most Americans, including this governor, believe that government is searching for a solution to a problem that has yet to be defined," McCrory said.
"The executive branch of the federal government does not have the authority to be the final arbiter."
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, the number of transgender people in the United States is unknown -- in part because many are not public about their identity. It estimates that between 0.25 and one percent of the population is transsexual.
In Texas, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said his state was ready to forfeit billions of dollars in federal aid -- most of it for free breakfast and lunch programs for students from financially disadvantaged families -- rather than comply with the administration.
"So Barack Obama, if schools don't knuckle down to force girls showering with boys and force eight-year-old girls to have to endure boys coming into their bathroom, he's taking money from the poorest of the poor," Patrick told reporters.
"Well, in Texas, he can keep his 30 pieces of silver. We will not yield to blackmail from the president of the United States... We will not sell out our children to the federal government."
Texas public schools receive about $10 billion in federal funds over a two-year budget.
Patrick called transgender bathroom access "the biggest issue facing families and schools in America since prayer was taken out of public schools."
The battle is part of a wider debate on equal rights in the United States, where a flurry of initiatives have targeted the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) communities since a historic Supreme Court decision last year legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
"There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex," said Lynch, the top US lawyer and chief law enforcement officer who delivered a powerful speech in support of transgender Americans earlier this week.
The administration argues that gender identity is protected under Title IX, a provision under the Education Amendments of 1972 that bars schools receiving federal funding from discriminating based on a student's sex.
Under the guidance issued Friday, schools must "take prompt and effective steps" to end, prevent and remedy sex-based harassment based on a student's actual or perceived gender identity, transgender status or gender transition.
Schools are asked to treat students "consistent with their gender identity," allow them to participate in sex-segregated activities and access sex-segregated facilities in line with their gender identity, as well as protect their privacy as concerns their transgender status.