FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Kentucky's Republican governor said Friday that he will join a lawsuit challenging a federal order to allow students to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity, jumping ahead of the state's Democratic attorney general and underscoring how the issue is driving a wedge between politicians in several states.
Eleven states announced Thursday that they had joined a court challenge to President Barack Obama's directive that public schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room of their choice, or else risk losing critical federal dollars. Gov. Matt Bevin said the federal government has no authority to dictate local schools' policies, and he criticized Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear for not joining the lawsuit sooner.
Bevin said that Beshear "unfortunately ... is unwilling to protect Kentucky's control over local issues."
"Therefore, my administration will do so by joining this lawsuit."
In a news release, Beshear said Bevin's statement "was not truthful."
The day after the Obama administration issued its directive to public schools, Bevin said he opposed it and was "researching" options to respond.
"I expected to be consulted on those options, but my office has not received a single phone call from the governor or his attorneys on this matter," Beshear said. "Any statement that (the attorney general's office) does not stand up for Kentucky families is entirely false."
In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant announced he would also join the lawsuit, despite the objections of Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood. Hood said he did not join the lawsuit because he had already joined a similar lawsuit and lost.
Republicans quickly used the issue to pounce on Beshear, son of former Gov. Steve Beshear and a potential candidate to challenge Bevin for re-election in 2019. Republican Party of Kentucky spokesman Tres Watson said Beshear is "more interested in playing politics than standing up for Kentucky."
But Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, said he was disappointed Bevin "has decided to be on the wrong side of history and the law."
"This lawsuit is nothing but a political stunt and an attack on transgender students, who are among our most vulnerable," Hartman said. "There have been no disruptions, increases in public safety incidents, nor invasions of privacy related to transgender students using the restrooms that match their gender identity."
Last year, Atherton High School in Louisville changed its policy to allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. The Republican state Senate responded by passing a bill to force transgender students to use separate bathrooms, but the measure never came up for a vote in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. The state legislature did not take up the issue this year.
In December, Bevin called the transgender bathroom issue "nonsense" in a speech to the Chamber of Commerce, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
"I'm just telling you right now. I have no tolerance or interest in that kind of nonsense. None," Bevin said. "Those things matter to some but they sure don't matter to everything else that needs to be addressed in this state. We are going to prioritize. We are going to have a sense of purpose."
The newspaper quoted Bevin spokeswoman Jessica Ditto as saying the "federal overreach" is what prompted Bevin to act in this case.
Kentucky's governor and attorney general have battled over social issues before. In 2014, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway declined to appeal a federal court order overturning the state's ban on gay marriage. But Steve Beshear hired private attorneys to appeal the decision anyway. Beshear ultimately lost at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bevin spokeswoman Jessica Ditto said Bevin will use his own attorneys and will not hire outside counsel.