BILLINGS - Gov. Steve Bullock criticized Montana's entrance into a multi-state lawsuit challenging transgender bathroom guidance issued by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice.
Attorney General Tim Fox announced on July 8 that Montana would join 20 other states challenging the directive.
"Ultimately, it's his decision," Bullock said Wednesday. "I think local school districts can best figure out how to deal with the directive themselves, probably much better than being in federal court."
Fox blasted the bathroom interpretation as an attempt to "usurp control of our local schools."
Released in a "dear colleague" letter, the guidance advises schools to let transgender students use the bathroom aligning with the gender they identify with. A White House spokesman said the guidance is not an "enforcement action."
The guidance could, theoretically, warn of potential enforcement action like federal funding cuts if schools don't comply, school law experts have said. But it isn't backed up by the force of law.
While it sparked national criticism, there was little public outcry in Montana. Neither School District 2 nor Montana State University Billings said they heard concerns from parents.
Officials from SD2, Montana's largest school district, said in May that they were reviewing school policies to see if changes were needed in light of the federal order. Bathroom issues in the district are currently handled on a "case-by-case basis" and the district has made accommodations for transgender students in the past, Superintendent Terry Bouck said.
Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau also criticized Fox the day the suit was announced.
Montana will likely take a backseat role in the suit, which is led by Nebraska.
The battle began to take shape when officials in Charlotte, North Carolina, passed a sweeping anti-discrimination ordinance that included a provision allowing transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to their gender identity. North Carolina lawmakers passed a law, House Bill 2, nullifying that ordinance and banning others like it.
Soon after, the Justice Department said the law violated the federal Civil Rights Act and said it couldn't be enforced. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said North Carolina's law requiring transgender people to use public restrooms and showers corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate amounts to "state-sponsored discrimination" and is aimed at "a problem that doesn't exist."
It's unclear how quickly the suit will proceed.
A federal court in Virginia allowed a lawsuit filed by a transgender student in Virginia against his local school board for barring him from the boys’ bathroom to proceed in a lower court. The board argued that the student, who was born female but identifies as a male, shouldn't use the boys’ bathroom.
The board recently appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bullock, whose office initially didn't respond to requests for comment when Montana joined the suit, banned discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity for state employees and state contractors with an executive order in January. He jabbed North Carolina with a tweet shortly after HB2 was passed, reading, "Dear North Carolina: We're open for business... for everyone."