Raleigh, N.C. — A proposal that codifies a statewide nondiscrimination policy in employment and public accommodations and prohibits North Carolina cities or towns from enacting stricter guidelines was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory late Wednesday after clearing the General Assembly in less than nine hours.
"I have signed legislation passed by a bipartisan majority to stop this breach of basic privacy and etiquette which was to go into effect April 1," McCrory said in a statement. "Although other items included in this bill should have waited until regular session, this bill does not change existing rights under state or federal law.
"It is now time for the city of Charlotte elected officials and state elected officials to get back to working on the issues most important to our citizens."
All Democratic members of the Senate walked out of the chamber in protest Wednesday evening, leading to a 32-0 vote for the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act.
"This bill essentially ties a noose around the necks of the cities and counties, and it smothers their ability to govern in a way that their citizens think they ought to," Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said as other Democrats left. "We're not participating in this effort that you make to roll back the clock in this state, to take away powers from local governments."
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger criticized the walkout. "Running out and ducking this vote is a serious breach of their duty to their constituents," he said.
On Wednesday afternoon, the House voted 84-24 in favor of the bill as state lawmakers rushed to push it through the General Assembly in a one-day special session.
"This is historic," said Rep. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, noting that North Carolina has never had a nondiscrimination statute.
The bill excludes gays and lesbians from discrimination protections, however, prompting an outcry from LGBT advocates, some corporations and Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democratic candidate for governor.
Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, called it the "worst anti-LGBT bill in the entire nation."
"The bill tears away at the fabric of my community by overturning and pre-empting vital protections for gay and transgendered people," Sgro said. "He [McCrory] goes back on his word again by signing legislation coming out of an expensive and unnecessary special session."
"That the North Carolina legislature would convene a costly special session specifically to invalidate and prohibit the expansion of civil rights for LGBT people is disgraceful," Eric Wachter, associate regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement. "Equality, fairness and the desire to stand on the right side of history are reasons enough for legislators to reject this odious and discriminatory legislation."
"Discrimination is wrong, period. That North Carolina is putting discrimination into the law is shameful," Cooper said in a YouTube video posted by his campaign.
"Our commitment to the fair treatment of all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, has not changed and is at the core of our NCAA values," NCAA spokeswoman Gail Dent said. "It is our expectation that all people will be welcomed and treated with respect in cities that host our NCAA championships and events."
Greensboro and Charlotte are scheduled to host regional games in the NCAA men's basketball tournament in the next two years.
A similar religious rights measure is pending in Georgia, where corporations and even the NFL have said they'll avoid doing business in the state if it becomes law.
The North Carolina bill also doesn't include disabled people among the groups protected from discrimination, but Bishop said other state statutes already protect them.
Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, tried to amend the bill so it included gays and lesbians among the protected groups, as well as veterans, but the Republican majority voted to table that suggestion.
The Senate Judiciary II Committee likewise tabled an attempt Wednesday evening by Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, to add gender identity to the bill for protections against discrimination.
Bathroom debate prompted bill
The legislation is in response to an ordinance passed last month by the Charlotte City Council that broadly defines how businesses treat LGBT customers. The ordinance includes a provision that allows transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity.
Social conservatives have railed against the Charlotte ordinance for weeks, saying it violates the religious freedom of business owners and puts women and children at risk by allowing sexual predators to go into women's bathrooms.
"If God didn't give you access to a male or female bathroom via your anatomy, neither should we give you access via either ordinance or legislation," John Amanchukwu, executive director of Upper Room Christian Academy in Raleigh, told members of the House Judiciary IV Committee on Wednesday morning.
Chloe Jefferson, a junior at Greenville Christian Academy, called the prospect of a boy in the girl's bathroom or locker room at her school "completely frightening," adding that dealing with body image is hard enough for teen girls without having boys around when they change clothes or go to the bathroom.
"I am not the only girl scared," Jefferson said.
Charlotte business owner Heather Garofalo encouraged lawmakers to outlaw local anti-discrimination ordinances, saying they threaten her religious right to choose not to serve LGBT customers.
"Business owners like myself, we would be forced to check our deepest-held beliefs at the door or suffer fines of $500, jail time, lawsuits," Garofalo said. "I am asking for a right to provide for my family."
But several transgender people pleaded with lawmakers to defeat the proposal, saying they are just as scared to go into bathrooms where they don't feel comfortable.
"I can't use the men's room. I won't go back to the men's room. It is unsafe for me there. People like me die there," said Madeleine Goss, a Raleigh woman who said she was bullied as a boy in Hickory because of her gender identity.
"I have the right to be safe too," a sobbing Angela Bridgeman told lawmakers.
"I feel bullied by you guys," Skye Thomson, a 15-year-old transgender boy from Greenville, told senators. "Imagine yourself in my shoes, being a boy walking into a ladies room. It's awkward and embarrassing and can actually be dangerous."
"Are you really interested in me being spit on and pushed around and shoved because of who I am in a restroom?" asked Rev. Michael Slack, a transgender man. "Legislating mistreatment, hatred and misunderstanding is shameful."
The bill would require people to use the bathroom that aligns with the gender listed on their birth certificate. Backers noted that North Carolina law allows people who have undergone a sex change to amend the gender on their birth certificates. California and Texas also allow people to amend their birth certificates, but it was unclear Wednesday whether other states had similar regulations.
"This is really not about bathrooms. It's about fear," said Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg. "The spirit of the bill is not what it says it intends to do."
Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, said the bill resorts to fear-mongering and "flies in the face of" attempts to move North Carolina forward.
"We must be a state that is inclusive and welcomes in North Carolina and protects everyone," Cotham said. "You are absolutely not protecting children, and you're not protecting women."
But Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, said "prisoners have more privacy" than people in public bathrooms under the Charlotte ordinance.
"How compassionate is it to strip North Carolina citizens of their right to privacy?" Arp said.
Cotham was able to amend the bill to allow parents or caregivers to take children under age 7 into a public bathroom with them, regardless of gender.
Lawmakers draw line on municipal power
In addition to voiding the bathroom provision of Charlotte's ordinance and spelling out state policy on discrimination in employment and public accommodations, the bill also would prohibit cities and counties from adopting so-called living wage ordinances because that would require businesses to pay workers more than the state-established minimum wage.
Bishop and other supporters said North Carolina needs consistent regulations for business and that Charlotte overstepped its authority by passing its ordinance.
"This is not new law," Bishop said. "It's a clarification."
His characterization of the Charlotte City Council as "a handful of radicals under the influence of an activist group" and the ordinance as "the picture of the subversion of the rule of law" drew sharp rebukes from House Democrats.
"Government is best when handled at the lowest level possible," said Rep. Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland, who called the bill "micromanaging."
"Even the authority you have given them in the past, you have taken away from them," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, noting the General Assembly has stripped cities of power several times in recent years.
Reps. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, and Nelson Dollar said the legislature needs to act when Charlotte or another jurisdiction oversteps its authority.
"These cities and counties, especially in this case, have operated outside their boundaries, and they're into the boundaries of the state," Hager said.
"We do not need any municipal government acting outside of its appropriate authority, particularly when they are seeking to make political statements," Dollar said.
Other issues raised
Opponents to the bill also argued that not prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity could put $4 billion in federal education funding to the state at risk under the Title IX gender equity law.
Similar legislation has been defeated in Tennessee and South Dakota because of such concerns, but Republicans in the General Assembly argued Title IX has exemptions that would preclude any loss of funds to North Carolina.
Democrats also questioned whether the bill would eliminate some protections for wrongful termination claims by fired workers. Republicans disagreed on whether that was the case, with some saying it didn't and others saying people were better off filing a federal lawsuit anyway.
"A rushed process leads to mistakes, leads to omissions," Martin cautioned his fellow House members.
Under the bill, discrimination complaints would be handled by the state Human Relations Commission, but some Democrats pointed out that Republicans gutted the commission's budget last summer, which would render it ineffective.
Legislation becomes campaign issue
Lawmakers called themselves into session on Tuesday after McCrory declined to do so. McCrory said he thought the issue could be addressed during the regular 2016 legislative session, which starts April 25, but legislative leaders wanted to pre-empt the Charlotte ordinance, which is scheduled to take effect April 1.
Cooper said McCrory sparked the debate by publicly denouncing the ordinance shortly after it passed.
"Gov. McCrory got us started down this path by promising legislative action for political gain," he said. "The governor lit the match and then stood aside as the fire grew out of control."
McCrory's campaign responded by accusing Cooper of not doing his job in fighting the ordinance himself.
"Roy Cooper supports forcing women and young girls to use the same restrooms and locker rooms as grown men, all in the name of political correctness, and he refused to act as attorney general to protect our privacy and defend our state's laws," Russell Peck, McCrory's campaign manager, said in a statement.
Berger and Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, the Republican candidate for attorney general, also criticized Cooper for his inaction on the Charlotte ordinance, which Newton called "a radical and dangerous policy."
"Frankly, if the attorney general would do his job, we wouldn't be here today," Newton said. "It would be easy for him to put a stop to this."
The Attorney General's Office has said no action is necessary because cases of indecent exposure and sexual assault can already be prosecuted under state law.