The North Carolina state Legislature has passed a law blocking local governments from passing anti-discrimination rules to grant protections to gay and transgender people.
The law comes a month after the city of Charlotte passed a measure protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from being discriminated against by businesses.
That measure was set to go into effect on April 1.
The state’s General Assembly wasn’t due to meet until late April, but it scheduled a special session — for the first time in 35 years, member station WUNC reports — on Wednesday to respond to the Charlotte measure before it went into effect.
Over the course of 12 hours, the state legislators introduced, debated and passed the bill, and Gov. Pat McCrory signed it into law.
The new law establishes a statewide nondiscrimination ordinance that explicitly supersedes any local nondiscrimination measures. The statewide protections cover race, religion, color, national origin and biological sex — but not sexual orientation or gender identity.
WFAE’s Tom Bullock noted a possible implication of those categories: “Since religion is a protected class, and the definition of religion is broad enough, this could be a kind of backdoor religious freedom restoration act — allowing businesses the right to refuse to serve customers based on the owner’s religious beliefs.”
One word dominated the debate over the bill and the Charlotte ordinance before it: “bathroom.”
Charlotte already protected residents from discrimination based on race, age, religion and gender. On Feb. 22, the city council voted to expand those protections to apply to sexual orientation and gender identity, too.
The most controversial element of Charlotte’s expanded ordinance was the fact that it would allow trans people to use the bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
Opponents argued this would make bathrooms unsafe for women and children. WFAE’s Sarah Delia, reporting on NPR in February, spoke to Pam Burton of Charlotte.
“I’m not scared of transgenders. That’s not what I think the problem is. Sexual predators are not good people,” Burton said. “They don’t do the right thing. They’re going to see this ordinance as a golden opportunity for fresh victims — our children. My 16-year-old daughter swims at The Y year-round. I’m not going to be able to confidently continue to allow her to use that locker room if this passes.”
Charlotte resident Lara Nazario, a trans woman, said critics of the measure have it backward. The idea that it would be dangerous to defend trans people’s rights to use the bathroom of their gender identity “is opposite to the reality that I live in,” Nazario said.
It’s forcing trans people to use the bathroom of the opposite gender that is dangerous, she said:
“If I were to walk into a men’s bathroom, I would either be told that I’m in the wrong bathroom or I’d be outed as a transgender woman. This can often lead to violence or harassment, especially when there’s no protection in place for people like me.”
The Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance extends protections to LGBT customers at bars, restaurants and stores, and in taxis. The heated debate over trans access to restrooms led to it being labeled by some as the “bathroom ordinance.”
And North Carolina’s response, in turn, is being called the “bathroom bill.”
The law opens by requiring all government-controlled facilities — including schools and universities — to assign all multiple-occupancy bathrooms and locker rooms to a single sex and prevent anyone who doesn’t match that biological sex from using the facility.
It later declares nondiscrimination “an issue of general, statewide concern,” and says local jurisdictions can’t craft their own nondiscrimination measures.
That nullifies Charlotte’s ordinance — as well as existing LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances in a half-dozen other jurisdictions in North Carolina, WFAE reports. It also blocks any other city or local government from extending such protections to LGBT residents in the future.
The law bars local governments from passing other ordinances, as well.
Again, WFAE’s Tom Bullock, from the station’s extensive coverage during the bill’s debate and passage yesterday:
“The bill would bar cities or counties from imposing their own minimum wage. So any move to establish a local minimum wage higher than the $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage would be a nonstarter. This has been done by other cities such as Seattle, which is phasing in a $15 an hour minimum wage.
“Cities and counties often have employment rules for companies seeking contracts. This bill also bars counties or municipalities from requiring these companies to pay a higher minimum wage in order to qualify for contracts. … This provision also bars requirements like companies provide paid sick leave.”
The bill passed the Republican-controlled General Assembly 82-26 in the House, and 32-0 in the Senate.
Gov. McCrory, after signing the bill late Wednesday, described the bill’s passage as “bipartisan.” But The Associated Press notes:
“Although 12 House Democrats joined all Republicans present in voting for the bill in the afternoon, later all Senate Democrats in attendance walked off their chamber floor during the debate in protest. Remaining Senate Republicans gave the legislation unanimous approval.
” ‘We choose not to participate in this farce,’ Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh said after he left the chamber.”
McCrory also said he was acting to protect citizens’ privacy, and criticized the Charlotte ordinance as “government overreach and intrusion.”