Business

Business community split after LGBT ordinance fails

Peter Barr, a Charlotte business executive who has a transgender son, spoke as a private citizen in support of the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance at Monday’s Charlotte City Council meeting.
Peter Barr, a Charlotte business executive who has a transgender son, spoke as a private citizen in support of the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance at Monday’s Charlotte City Council meeting. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Business owners who opposed a Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance said Tuesday the measure’s defeat is a victory that will protect their religious freedom by allowing them to decide whom to serve.

Meanwhile, a business group that backed the ordinance – which would have prohibited discrimination based on gender identity or sexuality – said its members would keep up pressure on the City Council after the measure’s 6-5 defeat.

In the emotionally charged debate, business concerns took a backseat to bitter disputes about whether transgender people should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice. But business issues wove through the debate as well.

Some business owners told the City Council on Monday that they could be forced to violate their religious beliefs by providing services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patrons. Other citizens said they would bring economic pressure to bear: A speaker from Concord told council members he would no longer drive to Charlotte and patronize businesses if the ordinance passed.

On the other hand, supporters of the ordinance said that by rejecting the measure, Charlotte would be sending a bad message to potential employees and businesses considering relocating to the city. They pointed out that many Fortune 500 companies have had nondiscrimination policies in place for years.

“As upper management in a Charlotte-based company, I will simply second the opinion ... that (the proposed ordinance) is good for business in Charlotte,” Peter Barr, general counsel for Charlotte-based Rack Room Shoes, told City Council. He said he is the father of a transgender son, and that he was speaking as a private citizen and father, not representing his employer.

Charlotte City Council member David Howard, who voted in favor of the ordinance, said he heard from business leaders before the vote that many supported the city expanding its nondiscrimination protections.

“Us not having some type of policy on the books is a concern,” said Howard.

The Charlotte Chamber, the city’s main business advocacy group and a major corporate recruiter, did not take a stance for or against the ordinance.

“The Charlotte Chamber does not have a position on the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance,” spokeswoman Natalie Dick said in an email. She declined to say why Tuesday, and the chamber did not make any officials available for interviews or follow-up questions.

Marty Karriker, president and CEO of Charlotte Insurance on South Boulevard, said he was happy the ordinance was voted down, saying it affirms business owners’ right to choose whom they serve.

Karriker, a conservative Christian, said he opposes same-sex relationships, though he said both he and his wife have friends who are gay. He said he wouldn’t turn away business from a gay person but believes businesses should make those decisions on their own.

“It shouldn’t contradict with the faith of the business, or the morals of the business,” he said. “I want to be able to choose who I do business with.”

He gave an example: “If a Satanic cult event came to the Charlotte area and needed insurance … I personally would not insure it,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be forced to insure it.”

Group says it will fight

Many of Charlotte’s top employers, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo, already have LGBT protections in place for their employees, said Chad Sevearance, president of the Charlotte Business Guild, an LGBT-founded business group and part of the coalition that originally proposed the ordinance.

The ordinance’s demise, he said, compromises those same employees who are unprotected “when they leave for lunch … when they go to hail a cab for a meeting across town,” he said. “Not only should we have protections in the workplace, but we should have protections in the marketplace, as well.

“The fact that someone can ask me to leave a restaurant because I’m presumed to be gay or transgender … it seems farfetched, but if it does happen, there’s no recourse,” he said.

The business guild planned to meet Tuesday night to consider protests or rallies, Sevearance said, but is more interested in holding public forums to speak to City Council about transgender issues. On its Facebook page, the guild rallied its members to contact City Council members and send a “loud message that this vote is unacceptable and will not be forgotten.”

Sevearance agrees with Howard’s statement that voting down the ordinance would not be good for recruiting business.

“When … individuals see this and look at Charlotte for a place to put roots down, they’re going to second-guess that,” he said.

Conflicting policies

Lee Badgett, a Winston-Salem native, economist and director of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Center for Public Policy and Administration, said that in her research, companies say they want to attract and retain the best employees, regardless of sexual orientation or gender.

Voting down the nondiscrimination proposal conflicts with the fact that same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina in October, Badgett said.

Now, same-sex couples in Charlotte can marry in the state, but if their employer finds out and doesn’t like it, the employee could be fired. That, Badgett said, could dissuade homosexual and heterosexual workers alike, as well as companies, from wanting to do business in the area.

“The conflict between the reality and potential for discrimination with the equal status in this other realm could really confuse people and make it less likely that they would want to move there,” Badgett said.

Opponents sign memo

Before Monday night’s vote, almost 100 business people signed a memo to the City Council voicing their opposition.

Nathan Dowdy, who signed, said he does not discriminate against LBGT customers in his business, a media and branding firm.

But he did have a problem with the restroom provision of the ordinance, which would have allowed transgender people to use a bathroom of their preference. The provision was “basically opening the door to some potentially hazardous situations for children, for those who cannot protect themselves,” he said.

Mark Tally, vice president of Shrub Doctor, said his business isn’t affected by a nondiscrimination proposal and that he would never deny someone service or a job based on sexual orientation. He said he signed the letter to protect businesses in the wedding industry, such as florists who want to act according their religious beliefs.

“People I know in these industries that could lose their businesses from it or have to go to court could end up spending $100,000 to defend themselves, and they’re barely making a living now. I just think it’s dangerous territory to cross,” Tally said.

Portillo: 704-358-5041;

Twitter: @ESPortillo

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