Proposed Charlotte LGBT ordinance stirs tensions

As the Charlotte City Council prepares for a March 2 vote to extend protections to gay, lesbian and transgender residents, some religious leaders are opposing the measure, saying the nondiscrimination proposal would infringe on their own freedom.

One flashpoint in the city proposal would allow transgender residents the ability to use the restroom of their choice in places of public accommodation, which would include restaurants and stores.

Supporters of the proposal, including MeckPAC, a political action committee for the local LGBT community, said it is important for transgender residents to use the bathroom in which they feel comfortable. The issue can be a safety issue, the group has said, because a man who expresses himself as a woman might feel threatened in the men’s restroom.

Mark Harris, pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte, said that part of the proposal concerns him the most.

“Even if there is no ill will (on the part of the transgender person using the restroom), you run the risk of your child being exposed to a biological male in a women’s restroom,” said Harris, who ran for U.S. Senate last year. “That’s not good public policy.”

He held a meeting with about 20 pastors regarding the proposed ordinance Thursday morning, and said he plans to speak against the proposal in early March.

The debate comes 23 years after the City Council rejected in a 7-4 vote a proposal to extend its nondiscrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation in places of public accommodation. In 1992, when that was being discussed, the issue of gender identity and gender expression was not considered.

Mayor Dan Clodfelter, a Democrat who was on the City Council at the time, said at a recent City Council meeting that he hopes to be on the winning side of the issue in 2015. He supported the additional protections for gay and lesbian residents then.

The city had scheduled the vote for Monday but pushed it to the March 2 meeting to accommodate speakers and because some council members will be absent. Republican council member Kenny Smith said he had received more than 800 emails about the topic on Thursday, with many against it.

He said he has never seen an issue that has drawn so much attention. A group called “Don’t Do it Charlotte” is planning a rally at the Government Center before the vote.

As the opposition has grown, supporters of the proposed changes have also begun an email and letter-writing campaign.

“We want council members to hear from their constituents on this,” said Krista Tillman, a Charlotte resident who is urging people to contact council members in support of the measure. “There are people scratching their heads and saying, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’ I try to encourage people in the majority to look out for the interest of those in the minority.”

The proposed changes would not rewrite the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance but would add new protected classes: sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, and marital and familial status.

The changes would not apply to employment.

That means a business could, in theory, fire someone because they are gay or transgender. But the same business would run afoul of the ordinance if it discriminated against that same person as a customer.

The ordinance applies to areas of public accommodation. That doesn’t include private clubs, but it does include places such as grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, shops and bars.

The city has said the nondiscrimination ordinance is difficult to enforce. The city hasn’t attempted to take away a business license, and City Attorney Bob Hagemann has said if a business was found in violation of the ordinance, a city committee would try to work with both sides to reach an understanding.

There are some areas in which the city has some leverage.

One is the city’s rules for licensing taxis and limousines. Under the proposal, a passenger vehicle for hire could not refuse to serve a gay or transgender resident or it could lose its city license.

Harris of First Baptist Church said he is OK with some of the changes, such as ensuring that gay and lesbian residents be served at a restaurant.

“Nobody is for someone not to be served,” Harris said.

But he said there should be exceptions that would, for instance, allow a florist or a caterer not to work at a same-sex wedding.

MeckPAC, which worked with the city to craft the ordinance changes, said that’s a primary reason it wants the protection. The group said it’s common for vendors to pull out of an event when they discover it’s for the LGBT community.

Earlier this month, council members voted 7-4 to place the issue on an upcoming agenda. Republicans Smith and Ed Driggs voted no, along with Democrats Michael Barnes and Greg Phipps. Democrat David Howard voted yes but said he hasn’t made a final decision as to how he will vote.

At that council meeting, the main concern was over the bathroom question.

The Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, which supports the expanded ordinance, said most other large U.S. cities already have similar protections for LGBT residents. The group said concerns over transgender people using the bathroom of their choice are scare tactics.

Harrison: 704-358-5160