Responding to mounting criticism over North Carolina’s House Bill 2, Gov. Pat McCrory on Tuesday expanded anti-discrimination protection for state employees and affirmed the right of local governments to do the same for theirs.
But the governor’s executive order did little to appease critics of the law, which has touched off a national firestorm from businesses, artists and gay rights groups. His order didn’t change the controversial “bathroom” provision that bars transgender people from using the bathroom they choose.
Economic development officials, meanwhile, hailed McCrory’s move as a signal that North Carolina is “open for business.”
Passed last month by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, HB2 nullified a Charlotte ordinance that had extended anti-discrimination protection to the LGBT community and had given transgender individuals the right to use the bathroom of their choice.
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McCrory and other supporters of the state law called it a common-sense measure aimed at protecting women and children from predators posing as transgender.
For nearly three weeks, HB2 has drawn fire from national gay rights groups and made the state a punch line on late-night comedy shows. Bruce Springsteen canceled a Sunday concert in Greensboro because of it.
The law also has taken an economic toll: California-based PayPal decided not to bring an operations center with 400 jobs to Charlotte. Four groups have canceled conventions or events in Charlotte, and nine that were considering events in the city have decided to look elsewhere. And Tuesday, Deutsche Bank announced it was freezing plans to create 250 jobs in Cary.
McCrory’s executive order expands state employment policy to cover sexual orientation and gender identity and affirms the rights of local governments and businesses to establish their own anti-discrimination policies for employees.
McCrory also promised to seek legislation to reinstate the right to sue in state court for discrimination, a right eliminated by HB2.
Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat who has harshly criticized HB2, tweeted: “Pleased to see movement from @GovOfficeNC. Historic to include LGBT protections for state employees. Look forward to more dialogue.” A spokesman said she would have no further comment.
Signal to business
Economic development officials said the executive order should restore business confidence.
“Today’s action is a clear message … that North Carolina is open for business and can be a leader in how we treat our citizens and our visitors,” said John Lassiter of Charlotte, who chairs the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, a public-private venture that recruits businesses.
Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber, said the order “sends a positive message to businesses across North Carolina and … throughout the country and world that North Carolina and Charlotte understand the need to attract and retain diverse talent in our workforce.”
But gay and transgender rights groups called the move insufficient.
“It’s obvious that Gov. McCrory is trying to save his reputation with this desperate move,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “His executive order says that transgender state employees are protected from discrimination, but they still can’t use the restroom at work. It doesn’t make sense.”
Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, said “private businesses, nonprofits and local governments have always been able to establish their own nondiscrimination policies for their employees.”
“What the governor is unable to do is prohibit discrimination against LGBT people in all areas of state life,” she said. “That is something the legislature needs to tackle.”
Equality NC Executive Director Chris Sgro, who was recently appointed to the state House, called it “just the beginning of the conversation.”
Issue in governor’s race
Like the law itself, the Republican governor’s order quickly became an issue in his re-election campaign.
“Gov. McCrory’s executive order is a day late and a veto short,” said Attorney General Roy Cooper, his Democratic challenger in November’s election. “The sweeping discrimination law he signed has already cost North Carolina hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue. ... He needs to do much more.”
Republicans blasted Cooper, who has said he wouldn’t defend the law in court.
“The attorney general now has two choices: Come up with another excuse to not do his job, or stand up for North Carolina families and defend a common-sense law,” state GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said in a statement.
Lawmakers reconvene April 25 for their short session. Leaders on Tuesday signaled they support McCrory’s order.
“Gov. McCrory just put to rest the left’s lies about HB2 and proved it allows private and public employers, nonprofits and churches the ability to adopt nondiscrimination policies that are stronger than state and federal law,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement.
“But that fact is irrelevant to Roy Cooper and his left-wing political correctness mob … who will never stop trashing North Carolina until they achieve their goal of allowing any man into any women’s bathroom or locker room at any time simply by claiming to feel like a woman.”
Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte, a Democrat, called McCrory’s actions Tuesday contradictory because the order extends protections to only some LGBT people – the ones who work for the state. It’s “an admission that you shouldn’t be fired simply for being gay or lesbian,” Jackson said.
“The governor just admitted that House Bill 2 was a big mistake, even if he can’t come out and say it,” Jackson said.
Groups opposing HB2 are calling for a repeal of the law and a replacement with full non-discrimination protections for all LGBT people.
The head of the state American Civil Liberties Union called McCrory’s actions “a poor effort to save face after his sweeping attacks on the LGBT community.”
“With this executive order, LGBT individuals still lack legal protections from discrimination, and transgender people are still explicitly targeted by being forced to use the wrong restroom,” ACLU of North Carolina acting Executive Director Sarah Preston said in a statement Tuesday.
In a video message, the governor said he would maintain “common-sense gender-specific restroom and locker room facilities” in government buildings and schools.
“Simply put,” he said, “I have listened to the people of North Carolina, and the people of North Carolina are entitled to both privacy and equality.”
Staff writers Steve Harrison and Pam Kelley contributed, along with The (Raleigh) News & Observer.