A gender-neutral bathroom is seen at the UnivREUTERS

Massachusetts' Senate on Thursday is set to take up debate of a bill protecting the rights of transgender people, a move some see as a rebuke to a North Carolina law requiring people to use bathrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates.

The bill, which would make Massachusetts the 18th U.S. state to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, has strong support in the Democratic-controlled legislature, although Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has not said whether he would sign it.

RELATED:Gov. Baker booed off stage at LGBT event

The Obama administration and North Carolina are battling in court over the legality of that state's law, passed in March, which the White House contends violates the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Backers of the law say it will protect women and girls from predators.


"When a state like North Carolina takes the action that it did, that really helps to make the argument here," said Peter Ubertaccio, director of the Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College.

"I'm very hopeful that over the next 90 days, the bill will be on the governor's desk," Massachusetts state Senate President Stan Rosenberg told reporters this week.

Baker, a socially liberal Republican, has said he will make a decision when he sees the final language.

"Gov. Bakerbelieves no one should be discriminated against based on gender identity," Baker spokeswoman Lizzy Guyton said in an email, adding the governor "will carefully review a bill should the legislature act."

That cautious stance has drawn the anger of transgender rights activists, who last month booed him off the stage at an event for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender businesspeople.

Baker dismissed a similar proposal when he unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2010.

Opponents of the measure argue that allowing people to use bathrooms or locker rooms that do not correspond with their birth sex raises a risk of sexual assault.

"The 'bathroom bill' will force women to undress or shower in the presence of men," said Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute."This violates a fundamental right to personal privacy."

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Supporters contend the strong business reaction to North Carolina's measure, with companies including PayPal Holdings and Deutsche Bank halting plans to expand, would help the Massachusetts bill's prospects.

"That gave the Republicans, including the governor, a bit of a warning," said Deborah Shields, executive director of MassEquality. "Charlie Baker wants to come across as business friendly if nothing else."

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