Earnest made the announcement in response to a Washington Blade question seeking an update on the federal government’s multiagency review of House Bill 2, which is separate from the process that led the U.S. Justice Department to file litigation against the law Monday.
“This was a review that agencies were working on together as they evaluate what impact this law would have on problems that are funded by the federal government,” Earnest said. “The White House has been a part of that review. The Department of Justice has been a part of that review. But all of that has been separate from the Department of Justice’s conclusion that they needed to take action to enforce the Civil Rights of 1964, and what has been concluded as a result of that effort is that the administration will not take action to withhold funding while this enforcement process is playing out in the courts.”
In the aftermath of the enactment of House Bill 2 in North Carolina, at least five federal agencies — the Departments of Transportation; Housing & Urban Development; Labor; Health & Human Services; and Education — conducted a review of the law to determine whether they would withhold federal funding to the Tar Heel State as a result of anti-LGBT statute.
Signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory after an emergency session of the state legislature, House Bill 2 undos all pro-LGBT non-discrimination city ordinances in the state, including one recently approved in Charlotte, and prohibits transgender people from using public restrooms in schools and government building consistent with their gender identity.
Asked by the Blade whether the state of North Carolina was given prior notice the federal government wouldn’t withhold federal funds as a result of the anti-LGBT law, Earnest said he doesn’t know if that determination was disclosed.
“I know that there has been regular communications with state officials in North Carolina from a variety of agencies, but I can’t speak to the details of any of these conversations,” Earnest said.
Josh Ellis, a McCrory spokesperson, credited the governor’s actions after enactment of House Bill 2 for the White House decision not to withhold funds to North Carolina.
“As Gov. McCrory has said all along, his administration’s assertive action against Washington overreach will protect federal funding for schools and other services while allowing the courts to resolve this issue,” Ellis said.
Ford Porter, a campaign spokesperson for North Carolina Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper, said the Obama administration was right to decide against withholding federal funds to North Carolina.
“It’s good news that the White House will not withhold federal funding for now,” Porter said. “North Carolinians shouldn’t have to miss out on essential funding for our schools and our roads because of this discriminatory law. It’s disappointing that Gov. McCrory is continuing to put billions in funding at risk, but the reality is he can end all this by working to repeal HB 2 immediately.”
An estimated $4.5 billion in funds under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 for North Carolina schools was in jeopardy as a result of House Bill 2. An Education Department spokesperson said Thursday the department’s review of the law is ongoing.
As first reported by the Washington Blade, at least four agencies — the Departments of Health & Human Services; Transportation; Housing & Urban Development; and Education – were concurrent to the review of the North Carolina law reviewing Mississippi’s newly enacted “religious freedom” law seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.
Earnest said he’s unaware of whether the Obama administration has reached the same conclusion not to withhold federal funds to Mississippi as a result of its “religious freedom” law for the time being.
“I’m not aware that the Department of Justice has notified the state of Mississippi of any potential enforcement action as a result of that law, at least at this point,” Earnest said.
Asked by the Blade for a response to critics who would the administration isn’t putting its full force behind the protection of equal rights by deciding not to withhold federal funds to North Carolina, Earnest pointed to remarks made by President Obama, who said the anti-LGBT law is “wrong and should be overturned,” and by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who called the measure “state-sponsored discrimination” upon announcing the lawsuit against it.
“I think the values statement that the president has offered with regard to this law has been clear, but as it relates to the more narrow question about the need to enforce the Civil Rights Act, I think the attorney general has been quite clear about the priorities for enforcement that she has laid out, and what impact that has on some people in North Carolina who right now might be feeling like, the state government at least, is not sufficiently committed to ensure equal treatment under the law,” Earnest said.
Recalling Lynch was born in North Carolina, Earnest continued, “I found the attorney general’s words to be quite powerful, and as a native North Carolinian, she had a unique perspective on this situation.”
Announcing the Justice Department’s litigation against House Bill 2 on Monday, Lynch said the administration retains the option “of curtailing federal funding to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina as this case proceeds.”
JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president of policy and political affairs for the Human Rights Campaign, pointed to those words from Lynch in response to the White House announcement it won’t cut funds from North Carolina at this time.
“To be clear, nobody is saying these funds aren’t still at risk,” Winterhof said. “As Attorney General Loretta Lynch clearly stated Monday, these funds are very much in jeopardy.”