NC lawmakers vow to overturn Charlotte transgender law
Posted February 23, 2016
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina's largest city has legalized the ability of transgender people to choose public restrooms corresponding to their gender identity. The governor calls it a threat to public safety, and some state lawmakers are vowing to overrule the city.
The Charlotte City Council voted 7-4 Monday to add sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status as attributes protected from discrimination when it comes to public accommodations including restaurants, retail stores and other businesses. Public schools would not be affected by the law, which would take effect April 1.
"I'm pleased that Charlotte has sent a signal that we will treat people with dignity and respect, even when we disagree," Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts said moments after the vote.
The Charlotte measure broadly defines how businesses must treat gay, lesbian and transgender customers, but as in other cities recently, the debate has focused on bathrooms.
One key legislative leader signaled Tuesday that he is prepared to intervene. House Speaker Tim Moore said in a statement he would join fellow Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and conservative colleagues "in exploring legislative intervention to correct this radical course." The legislature's next scheduled session begins in late April.
"I wouldn't be surprised if this takes up the first couple of weeks of the session," said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh.
North Carolina lawmakers have many ways to overturn local ordinances, McLennan said, or they could pass a statewide law designating all bathrooms according to birth gender.
"They could pass something just local to Mecklenburg County," he said. "It seems like doing something statewide would prevent other localities from doing the same thing Charlotte would do."
Raleigh and Wake County have ordinances banning discrimination by the city and the county against gays and lesbians, but no other ordinances are under consideration. Two Wake County students have petitioned the school system to allow them to use the restrooms of their choice, but the school district hasn't yet addressed the petition.
McCrory, a former mayor of Charlotte, said changing restroom rules could "create major public safety issues."
"Also, this action of allowing a person with male anatomy, for example, to use a female restroom or locker room will most likely cause immediate state legislative intervention, which I would support as governor," he wrote Sunday in an email to two council members.
Since a similar anti-discrimination ordinance approved by Houston's city council was overturned in a voter referendum last year after opponents raised fears about bathroom safety, this line of attack has been used repeatedly around the country. In South Dakota, where the legislature passed a bill requiring students to use bathrooms corresponding to their sex at birth, transgender activists were trying to persuade the governor not to sign it.
"This exact same ordinance has been passed in cities across the country. There have been zero incidents reported," said Shawn Long, director of operations for advocacy group Equality NC. "When I was growing up, it was said that gay people in bathrooms were the threat. So, this is just the latest iteration of that. It's pure fear-mongering."
Long said the ordinance is meant to protect transgendered people from harassment, and lawmakers should leave it alone.
"It’s pandering to a very extreme fringe, and it’s unfortunate some people feel they need to do that," he said.
Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, accused McCrory and legislators of trying "to bully the Charlotte City Council with threats to strip municipalities of their rights to govern."
"A lot of people would say we’ve got a lot of othjer issues – economic development, transportation, all these sort of things – but we’ve seen time and time again, the General Assembly will move to social issues – abortion, any number of other issues – when the opportunity arises," McLennan said. "I think that shows the strength of social conservatives in the General Assembly and what they want to focus their attention on."
About 140 members of the public got one minute each to offer their opinions to the Charlotte City Council before Monday's vote. The council chambers were filled to capacity, and some speakers had to await their time outside.
Among them was Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, who said, "I applaud Gov. McCrory for having the sense to throw out this unreasonable and unnecessary ordinance."
Members of Charlotte's LGBT community said in a survey the changes are needed because they have been denied service, received poor service or experienced disparaging comments, according to supplemental materials attached to Monday's council agenda. Opponents, including some clergy and business owners, sent the council a letter asserting that businesses should have the right to refuse service based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Conservative activists have called on lawmakers to pass legislation to protect what they say are the religious rights of business owners to refuse service to gays and lesbians.
Research by the council's staff cited some residents' concerns that sexual predators would use the ordinance to gain entry to women's restrooms for assault or indecent exposure, but the researchers also said they had not found any evidence of such crimes increasing in cities with such ordinances.
Several hundred people stood outside in a wind-driven rain to protest, holding signs saying "No Men In Women's Restrooms" and "Keep Kids Safe."
Chris Williams, a 30-year-old father of three, passed out "No" stickers to the crowd, saying most Charlotte residents "stand with religious values."
"I don't want my kids having to even question, 'Why is there this person in the restroom?'" he said. "I don't think they should even be faced with that question and that concern."
A similar measure was narrowly defeated by the Charlotte City Council in March 2015, even after the bathroom provision was removed. Local officials later announced that in city- and county-owned facilities, transgender people could freely use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.