By Megan Cassella
The Obama administration's notice to US public schools that transgender students must be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice has raised questions about federal funding and legal authority that could play out for months.
Some Republicans and religious conservatives on Friday (local time) pushed back against the administration's non-binding guidance to schools, escalating tensions over the volatile issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans' civil rights.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement that the guidance "must be challenged."
A Tea Party champion, he said in a statement: "If President Obama thinks he can bully Texas schools into allowing men to have open access to girls in bathrooms, he better prepare for yet another legal fight."
The US Education and Justice departments, in a letter, told school districts nationwide that, while the new guidance carries no legal weight, they must not discriminate against students, including based on their gender identity.
The guidance contained an implicit threat that school districts defying the Obama administration's interpretation of the law could face lawsuits or be deprived of federal aid.
"Our guidance sends a clear message to transgender students across the country: here in America, you are safe, you are protected and you belong, just as you are," Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement with the letter sent to school districts nationwide.
The guidance came at a time when the Justice Department and North Carolina are battling in federal court over a state law approved in March prohibiting people from using public restrooms not corresponding to their gender assigned at birth, while other states weigh similar measures.
North Carolina's law was the first to ban people from restrooms in public buildings and schools not matching the sex on their birth certificate.
Mississippi has enacted legislation similarly viewed as discriminatory by civil and gay rights groups, and Tennessee and Missouri considered similar measures.
The letter to the schools from Washington said that, to get federal funding under existing rules, a school has to agree not to treat students or activities differently on the basis of sex.
That includes not treating a transgender student differently from other students of the same gender identity, officials said.