- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said Friday that the state should defy new federal guidance that says public schools should make sure transgender students can use locker rooms and bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Republican Bryant originally criticized President Barack Obama’s administration but stopped short of calling for defiance. However, after the Mississippi Department of Education said the state will follow the federal guidance, the second-term governor issued a new and more strongly worded statement.

“The directive is nonbinding, and does not carry the force of law,” Bryant said. “Because these decisions are better left to the states, and not made at the point of a federal bayonet, Mississippi’s public schools should not participate in the president’s social experiment.”

The U.S. departments of Education and Justice told states Friday that public schools must treat transgender students in a way that matches their identity, even if school records or identity documents list a different sex.

The Mississippi Department of Education said it will follow the federal guidance, although it didn’t offer details of what it will tell local districts. “A safe and caring school environment is critical to a student’s ability to learn and achieve,” the department’s statement said.

A Mississippi law that’s set to take effect July 1 says the state cannot punish a person who cites religious beliefs and sets “sex-specific standards or policies” for employee or student dress or grooming, or for access to bathrooms, spas, dressing rooms, locker rooms “or other intimate facilities or settings.” Two groups have filed federal court challenges to House Bill 1523 (http://bit.ly/1Mq4DyE ), which also says workers can cite their own religious objections to same-sex marriage to deny services to people.

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves criticized the federal guidance on treatment of transgender students but stopped short of calling for defiance.

“State and local communities should not be forced to push a liberal agenda by a president out of touch with the American people,” Reeves said Friday.

The question of whether federal civil rights law protects transgender people may ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court. However, schools that refuse to comply could face civil rights lawsuits from the government, and the Obama administration could try to cut off federal aid to schools to force compliance.

“It would be wrong for the administration to withhold federal funding from public schools that choose to handle this sensitive matter in their own way,” said U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. “These are local issues best decided by those who live in our communities. Once again, the courts will inevitably have to weigh in because this administration continues to impose rules without having the proper authority.”

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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