NASHVILLE — Twenty-six out of 28 members of Tennessee's GOP-run Senate on Monday called on Gov. Bill Haslam to file a lawsuit "if necessary" in opposition to President Barack Obama's directive that the nation's public schools allow transgender students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity and not their biological sex at birth.
The letter, signed by Sens. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Bo Watson, R-Hixson, among others, says that "by circumventing the Congress, the courts and the American people, a sweeping directive has been issued based on little more than political correctness and a vastly expansive interpretation of Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law prohibiting sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding amended in 1972."
Their missive also says that "serving with you on behalf of our citizens, who elected us to dutifully represent our Tennessee values and principles, we write to you in support of our State joining our neighbors, in legal action if necessary opposing the Obama Administration's 'decree' which denies the privacy rights of more than 99 percent of Tennesseans."
Earlier today, Haslam, a Republican governor, denounced as "heavy handed" Obama's directive issued last week by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education.
In the recently completed legislative session, Haslam expressed concerns about a pending Tennessee bill that sought to restrict public K-12 and college students to restrooms, locker rooms and similar facilities consistent with their birth sex.
At the time, Haslam said the issue was best addressed by local education officials, and he now is criticizing the "long arm" of the federal government.
In his statement issued earlier Monday, Haslam noted, "the White House itself has said what they issued last week is not an enforcement action and does not make any additional requirements under the law."
Haslam said only "Congress has the authority to write the law, not the executive branch, and we disagree with the heavy-handed approach the Obama administration is taking."
He added that "decisions on sensitive issues such as these should continue to be made at the local level based on the unique needs of students, families, schools and districts while working closely with the local school board counsel, understanding that this is an emerging area of law that will ultimately be settled by the courts."
Now, the 26 senators, who comprised the vast majority of the 33-member Senate, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Senate speaker, are calling for more action. The effort was led by Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, as he positions himself for a potential gubernatorial bid to succeed Haslam in 2018.
Asked about the Republican senators' letter to Haslam pushing a lawsuit, the governor's press secretary, Jennifer Donnals, said in an email that "the governor's statement speaks for itself. The White House said the guidance was not an enforcement action and didn't make any additional requirements under the law. Decisions on sensitive issues like this should continue to be made at the local level."
When the federal directive was issued last week, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said "there is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex. This guidance gives administrators, teachers and parents the tools they need to protect transgender students from peer harassment and to identify and address unjust school policies."
While the directive doesn't carry the weight of law, the thrust is schools face loss of federal education funding if they don't comply.
Earlier Monday, Joe Carr, a former state Republican lawmaker now running for Congress, challenged Haslam and state lawmakers "to immediately join North Carolina in their lawsuit against the Obama Administration's bullying tactics."
Carr also called on "every school system in Tennessee to initiate a lawsuit suing the Department of Justice and the Department of Education."
He then sought to put his GOP primary foe, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., on the defensive with a challenge that she, other GOP congressmen and Tennessee's two U.S. senators, including U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander — whom Carr unsuccessfully challenged in 2014 — "join me in demanding that Governor Haslam and Attorney General Slatery take immediate legal action against the Obama Administration to protect Tennessee's Children.
"It is time that our elected leaders grew a spine and hit back against another unconstitutional Obama order," Carr added.
Black is widely seen as positioning herself for a 2018 gubernatorial bid, as well.
North Carolina passed a new law this year that among other things restricts transgender students to restrooms and other facilities matching their sex as listed in official school documents. That prompted the U.S. Justice Department to sue and North Carolina government to countersue.
Last week, federal Justice and Education officials issued a directive to all public schools in the nation that they must find ways to accommodate transgender students.
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Alexander criticized the Obama directive and said "insofar as the federal government goes, it's up to Congress to write the law, not the executive departments. And guidance issued by the departments does not amount to federal law and should not be treated as such."
But the Obama administration, which previously warned North Carolina about its law, is threatening to yank Title IX funding in states that pass such legislation.
During Tennessee's recently completed legislative session, Haslam had been critical of the Tennessee bill and state Attorney General Herbert Slatery had warned in a legal opinion that it risked the state losing an estimated $1 billion in federal funds due to Obama administration interpretations of Title IX rules against sex discrimination.
The state House sponsor of the legislation, state Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, wound up shelving the measure.
Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who sponsored the Senate companion bill, last week told the Times Free Press that Obama "cares nothing about local control and everything about kowtowing to the .03 percent of the population out there that's transgender."
"If this is not a reason to get rid of the federal Department of Education and allow the states to completely control what goes on in K-12 education, I don't know what is," Bell said. "And I hope our states start looking at this."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-255-0550 or follow via Twitter @AndySher1.