By Anne Blythe

Roy Cooper, the North Carolina attorney general, said Tuesday that his office will not defend state officials and state agencies against the law adopted last week that strikes down locally enacted protections for lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Cooper, a Democrat running for governor, called the measure "a national embarrassment" that "will set North Carolina's economy back if we don't repeal it."

Since Gov. Pat McCrory signed the so-called HB2 into law, there has been a backlash of opposition from businesses, sporting event organizers, the White House and on Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio both issued bans on nonessential government travel to North Carolina to protest the measure.

"The threats to our economy will grow even darker the longer this law stays in effect," Cooper said at a news conference Tuesday.

Cooper, whose office put in an antidiscrimination policy in 2001, said the law conflicts with that state Department of Justice policy and a similar one adopted by the state treasury department.

Because he plans to defend the agencies against the state law, Cooper said he would not defend McCrory, the University of North Carolina board of governors and others named in a federal lawsuit filed Monday.

During Cooper's news conference, North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore, Phil Berger, sent out a statement calling for Cooper to step down from his elected post.

"Roy Cooper's refusal to defend the law makes clear he wants the ACLU to win by default in federal court what they can't win at the ballot box and allow men to walk into locker rooms at YMCAs across our country and undress in front of young girls," Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, said in a statement. "His zeal for pandering for the extreme left's money and agenda in his race for governor is making it impossible for him to fulfill his duties as attorney general _ and he should resign immediately."

Cooper responded that he had no plans to step down, that he planned to continue to do his job.

The attorney general pointed out that his office had defended the state against laws he personally didn't agree with _ citing the 2013 elections overhaul that included a voter ID provision as one. The university and UNC system board of governors has hired outside counsel to represent them on other legal issues, Cooper pointed out. And the governor, Cooper said, "has not hesitated to hire his own attorneys and we would assume he would want to do that again in this case."

"My office has stepped up and defended some bad legislation that I do not agree with," Cooper said. "We do our job in this office. We have seen legislation passed that hurts North Carolinians. We've seen legislation passed that hurts people's ability to register to vote. Our office is required _ and we have stepped up to defend those cases regardless of any other consequences. But, that fact has encouraged me to run for governor, because I know as attorney general I can't have as much of an effect on those policies as I can running for governor."

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North Carolina, Equality NC, and Lambda Legal _ four organizations challenging House Bill 2 in federal court _ released a joint statement praising Cooper's decision.

"North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, the state's top law enforcement official, has concluded House Bill 2 is unconstitutional and harms North Carolinians without justification," the statement said. "As our lawsuit highlighted yesterday, House Bill 2 singles out the LGBT community for discrimination. That's not only incompatible with the state's constitutional and legal obligations but also our shared values as North Carolinians."

(c)2016 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)