Raleigh, N.C. — A pair of bills filed Thursday in the state House call not only for repealing the controversial House Bill 2 but also for casting a wider net for nondiscrimination in North Carolina. One would toughen the penalties for crimes in public bathrooms and locker rooms as well.
The state has been struggling with House Bill 2 for almost a year, when lawmakers swiftly passed it in a one-day emergency session to head off a Charlotte ordinance that would have required businesses to allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their choice. The state law went beyond voiding that ordinance, however, to exclude the LGBT community from nondiscrimination protections and prevent cities from setting their own minimum wages.
Since then, North Carolina has received nationwide scorn and has lost out on business expansions, concerts, conventions and athletic events because of the law. NCAA officials have indicated the state could be blackballed from hosting championships for the next six years if the law isn't repealed, Scott Dupree, executive director of the Raleigh Sports Alliance, said recently.
An effort to repeal House Bill 2 failed in December, but Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper continue to press for new repeal votes in the General Assembly.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said the law has already cost the Greensboro area at least $25 million in lost business, and six more years without NCAA events would put losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
So, Harrison filed House Bill 82 to repeal House Bill 2 and to expand "protected status" in terms of nondiscrimination to include sexual orientation, gender identity, military or veterans' status, marital status and age. The state already includes race, gender, national origin, religion, disability and family status as protected classes.
"It will provide enhanced statewide protections in a number of areas," Harrison said. "These added protections will apply to housing, employment, public accommodations, credit, insurance and education. This bill reflects North Carolina values, unlike House Bill 2. It’s long overdue."
Supporters said the proposal would send a strong message to businesses and groups like the NCAA.
"The NCAA is watching us closely to see what North Carolina stands for. So is the nation. The clock is ticking," said Zack Medford, who owns three downtown Raleigh bars.
"When tourists from out of state stop coming to North Carolina because of HB2, that is real money out of my pocket. That’s income that I count on to pay my mortgage and to feed my family," Medford said.
House Speaker Tim Moore couldn't be reached for comment, but a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said Republican legislative leaders still demand some sort of compromise that would ensure the safety of women and girls in public bathrooms before they agree to a repeal.
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, said House Bill 2 continues to be framed as "a false debate between emotion and evidence," noting supporters of the law use an emotional argument of sexual predators in public bathrooms that isn't supported by any evidence of men posing as transgender women to go into a bathroom and attack someone.
Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, tried to address that issue with House Bill 78, which does everything Harrison's bill does but also ratchets up the prison time for crimes committed in public bathrooms and locker rooms by as much as seven years.
Still, conservative groups quickly criticized the proposals.
John Rustin, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council, said the expansion of nondiscrimination protections "represents the Charlotte ordinance on steroids."
"These bills would open bathrooms, showers, locker rooms and changing facilities across North Carolina to anyone at any time and would enact into law the exact weapons used in other states to attack and punish people of faith who are seeking to peacefully live their lives and operate their businesses in accordance with their deeply held religious beliefs," Rustin said in an email to WRAL News.
"There is no justification for adding new categories creating special rights for sexual orientation and gender identity to existing laws, yet Gov. Roy Cooper, Democrat leaders and national and state sports organizations have launched an all-out effort to leverage collegiate sports to do just that, in addition to coercing our citizens to lose their privacy and safety in bathrooms," Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, said in a statement.
A spokesman for Cooper declined to say whether the governor supports expanding the state's anti-discrimination law, but North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said he thinks legal protections for LGBT people are unnecessary.
"We provide equal protection under the law for every citizen, regardless of their status, and that’s the way it needs to be because, if you pick out this group, that group, whatever, where do you start? Where do you stop? And how do you maintain equal protection?" Hayes said.
Because Republicans control both the House and the Senate, neither Harrison's nor Brockman's bill is expected to gain any traction. A House Bill 2 repeal bill filed last week by Senate Democrats has been shunted to the Senate Rules Committee, where it is unlikely to get a hearing.