(TNS) — Supporters of LGBTQ rights are preparing to lobby local North Carolina governments to pass ordinances to ban discrimination, and social conservative activists are ready to fight these efforts.
Their conflict could soon be seen in communities across the state and at the legislature when the N.C. General Assembly convenes in January, and it could end up in the courts. Some elected officials may get caught up in a struggle they'd rather avoid.
This new battle over whether businesses may discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer customers, employees and contractors — and whether LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinances unduly impinge on the rights of religious people whose faiths say homosexuality is immoral — stems from North Carolina's controversial "bathroom bill" of 2016. The law was also known as House Bill 2 or HB2.
House Bill 2 brought North Carolina a year of protest, tension and drama until it was partly repealed in March 2017. The partial repeal included a paragraph that temporarily prohibited prohibited local governments from passing anti-discrimination ordinances for LGBTQ people. The moratorium expired on Dec. 1.
While 2016's HB2 was on the books, professional sports organizations, the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference, entertainers and conventions said the law was discriminatory and wrong. They began canceling events in North Carolina because of it. Some businesses whose ownership and leaders disliked the law began shunning the state when looking for places to open new operations.
Film and television makers canceled plans to make their shows in North Carolina, said Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo.
"It definitely hurt the film industry, the City of Wilmington, and New Hanover County, no doubt about that," said Saffo, who also serves on state and local film commissions. "In fact, it hurt the entire state. It hurt us quite dramatically."
House Bill 2 ostensibly was created to protect women and children from sexual predators in public restrooms, locker rooms and similar locations — although it applied only to state and local government property. Its supporters vigorously defended a loophole that prevented the law's purported public safety mandate from being enforced in public restrooms, dressing rooms, showers and locker rooms on private property.
The law required government agencies to prohibit men from using government-owned women's restrooms, locker rooms, and so on, and women from using the men's facilities. It prevented transgender people who had not fully transitioned from their birth gender from using the restrooms they felt most comfortable using and that matched their gender identity.
The law also prohibited city councils and other local governments from passing LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinances.
The Republican-majority legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory passed HB 2 in March 2016 because Charlotte's City Council in February 2016 passed an anti-discrimination ordinance regarding marital and familial status, sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity. House Bill 2 nullified Charlotte's ordinance; the city council later took its ordinance off the books.
A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and newly elected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in March 2017 passed a new law, House Bill 142, to partly repeal HB2. This came after cancelations of prominent events in North Carolina such as the NBA All-Star Game, and NCAA and ACC championship sporting events.
LGBTQ advocates were disappointed by the partial repeal, saying that it wasn't enough and that it was more about basketball than civil rights. The social conservatives who fought for HB2 also were unhappy with the repeal.
House Bill 142 included the moratorium on local anti-discrimination ordinances.
LGBTQ effort underway
With the expiration of that moratorium on Tuesday, LGBTQ organizations Equality North Carolina and The Campaign for Southern Equality held an online town hall meeting that evening to discuss their plans to seek anti-discrimination ordinances throughout the state. Participants included Durham City Council Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, and state House Rep. Susan Fisher of Asheville.
"And right now in North Carolina, what offense looks like, what winning can look like, ... is a coordinated effort to pass nondiscrimination ordinances in cities, towns and counties across the state, in such a way, and in such a volume, to demonstrate the level of support that's there," said Beach-Ferrara, who also is the executive director of The Campaign for Southern Equality.
The advocates need to demystify what it means to create a nondiscrimination ordinance, Beach-Ferrara said, to build support "in communities that may not quite be ready, but be starting to contemplate it," she said.
Their ultimate goal is comprehensive nondiscrimination protections at the state level, plus civil right protections on LGBTQ issues, racial justice and economic justice, she said.
The advocates see hope of success in a 2019 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. It said 67% of North Carolinians surveyed supported laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing.
LGBTQ people want to go about their everyday lives without being harassed, denied service at a business, fired from a job or denied a job, or otherwise discriminated against.
Allison Scott, the director of policy and programs at The Campaign for Southern Equality, said she was harassed at a previous job because she is transgender, and some coworkers asked for her to be fired following the passage of House Bill 2. Their requests were denied, she said.
City council plans
So far, any effort to pass an LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinance is appears to be embryonic.
"I am unaware of any cities that are planning to act immediately as of the expiration of this sunset," said Executive Director Beau Mills of the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition.
"A handful of cities have been examining the issue and the potential implications, as they would with any issue of importance to their residents," he said. "As these discussions have begun, city officials have been starting the process of reaching out to residents, business leaders and others in their communities."
Opponents ready to sue
The LGBTQ advocates' efforts to pass anti-discrimination ordinances will be opposed by the North Carolina Values Coalition, a socially conservative advocacy organization.
"If a city or a county is considering passing one of these ordinances, they should think twice because they're likely unconstitutional under the state constitution as well the federal constitution," said Executive Director Tami Fitzgerald. "And they might just see a legal action."
Fitzgerald wants the General Assembly to reinstate the ban that prohibited local governments from passing LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinances, and she wants the lawmakers to make it permanent.
The NC Values Coalition and other socially conservative groups recently sent a letter to cities and counties to argue against LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinances, Fitzgerald said.
She cited two angles of attack in lawsuits against city ordinances.
First, the North Carolina constitution prohibits cities, counties and towns from passing ordinances on specific topics unless the legislature grants them the authority to do so. "Cities and counties in North Carolina do not have the constitutional authority to pass ordinances at this time," she said.
Second, Fitzgerald thinks an opponent would prevail under the federal First Amendment, which protects freedom of religion.
"The biggest harm is going to be to small business owners," she said, such as a florist in Washington state and a bakery in Colorado. Citing religious objections, the florist refused to make floral arrangements for a gay couple's wedding, and the bakery refused make a cake that a gay couple wanted to celebrate their marriage. Both ended up in court.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Colorado bakery, but its ruling did not address the underlying issue of whether a business open to the public can legally deny service based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Washington state florist's case is pending before the high court.
Beach-Ferrara said in a news conference on Tuesday evening the LGBTQ advocates are "relentlessly optimistic" that lawmakers and the courts would side with them. The advocates "ultimately believe religious freedom is sacred in our country, but when one's expression of their religious beliefs begins to harm other people, the public good has been violated, and that's where we need to see the government step in."
Senior North Carolina reporter Paul Woolverton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 910-261-4710.