The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II transactivator gene (CIITA) encodes an important transcription factor required for HLA class II MHC-restricted antigen presentation. MHC genes, including the HLA class II DRB1*03:01 allele, are strongly associated with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Recently the rs4774 CIITA missense variant (+1632G/C) was reported to be associated with susceptibility to multiple sclerosis. In the current study, we investigated CIITA, DRB1*03:01 and risk of SLE using a multi-stage analysis. In stage 1, 9 CIITA variants were tested in 658 cases and 1,363 controls (N = 2,021). In stage 2, rs4774 was tested in 684 cases and 2,938 controls (N = 3,622). We also performed a meta-analysis of the pooled 1,342 cases and 4,301 controls (N = 5,643). In stage 1, rs4774*C was associated with SLE (odds ratio [OR] = 1.24, 95% confidence interval [95% CI] = 1.07–1.44, P = 4.2 × 10−3). Similar results were observed in stage 2 (OR = 1.16, 95% CI = 1.02–1.33, P = 8.5×10−3) and the meta-analysis of the combined dataset (OR = 1.20, 95% CI = 1.09–1.33, Pmeta = 2.5×10−4). In all three analyses, the strongest evidence for association between rs4774*C and SLE was present in individuals who carried at least one copy of DRB1*03:01 (Pmeta= 1.9×10−3). Results support a role for CIITA in SLE, which appears to be stronger in the presence of DRB1*03:01.