Politics & Government

Charlotte City Council’s LGBT proposal sparks firestorm from faith leaders

Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes (center), speaks at a Charlotte City Council meeting. Proposed changes to Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance appear headed to a close vote Monday night by City Council members deluged with phone calls and a staggering 39,000 emails.
Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes (center), speaks at a Charlotte City Council meeting. Proposed changes to Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance appear headed to a close vote Monday night by City Council members deluged with phone calls and a staggering 39,000 emails. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Proposed changes to Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance appear headed to a close vote Monday night by City Council members deluged with phone calls and a staggering 39,000 emails.

The proposals have sparked a firestorm, with groups of clergy on both sides sending open letters to the council and at least 75 people signing up to speak at the council meeting.

“I have gotten more emails on this than any issue in the 10 years I’ve been on council,” Democrat Michael Barnes said Friday.

Council members are scheduled to vote on an expansion of its nondiscrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity to a list of protected groups. It also would prohibit discrimination based on someone’s marital and familial status.

The most contentious provision would allow transgendered people to use the bathroom in which they feel most comfortable. That’s been the focus of radio ads and thousands of phone messages paid for by opponents. In them, they’ve charged that allowing biological males to use women’s bathrooms could endanger women and children.

Those claims have been dismissed as scare tactics by local LGBT leaders, who say there’s no evidence that nondiscrimination ordinances in other cities have posed any bathroom-related problems.

The proposed ordinance was initiated by the city’s LGBT leaders, which says it’s time Charlotte joined the country’s other big cities in extending civil rights to their often-targeted community. Since last year, Scott Bishop, board chairman of MeckPAC, and Cathryn Oakley of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign have been working with City Attorney Bob Hagemann to craft the proposed changes.

Feeling shut out from such deliberations and opposed to the ordinance on religious grounds, a group of 95 conservative pastors and business leaders criticized the ordinance in a letter Friday to the council.

“The ordinance is addressing a problem that doesn’t exist,” said the letter, signed by the Rev. Mark Harris of First Baptist Church of Charlotte, among others. “Charlotte is already a tolerant city.”

But the ordinance, the letter said, “will create unnecessary tensions, lawsuits and violate the Constitutional protections of all Charlotteans … by requiring them to give up their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, religion and association.”

Besides Harris, a candidate last year for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination, other signers included Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews; Mel Graham, a board member of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; Tami Fitzgerald of the N.C. Values Coalition; and twin brothers David and Jason Benham, real estate agents from Concord who became heroes of religious conservatives after HGTV canceled their planned cable TV show, “Flip it Forward,” citing anti-gay comments from David.

The letter’s signers also shared profiles of Christian business owners around the country who, they said, have been expected to violate their religious principles because of such ordinances by, for example, renting space or arranging flowers for same-sex weddings.

Catholic Bishop Peter Jugis also urged the City Council to reject the ordinance in a statement this week.

“I pray that the City Council will provide all of the people of Charlotte with an ordinance that respects our constitutional right to the free exercise of religion,” Jugis said. “God made men and women different; as a society, we should respect that difference.”

But 40 liberal Charlotte clergy who support the proposed ordinance also penned their own letter to council Friday, saying “we are troubled that equal protections are not afforded to the (LGBT) members of our faith communities.”

The letter also criticized what it called “the tones of fear and misinformation from a few religious leaders” speaking against the ordinance. Among the signers from various denominations: Rabbi Judy Schindler of Temple Beth El, the Rev. Robin Coira of Myers Park Baptist, the Rev. Peter Brown of St. Mark Lutheran, the Rev. Dennis Foust of St. John’s Baptist, the Rev. Nancy Allison of Holy Covenant United Church of Christ and the Rev. Robin Tanner of Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church.

Council members are split. Earlier this month, council members voted 7-4 to place the issue on an upcoming agenda.

“I just believe it’s the right thing to do,” said Democrat Patsy Kinsey. “I believe we’re all God’s children, and we’re all equal. It’s very simple for me.”

Kinsey appears to be one of at least four votes for the proposed changes, with Democrats Al Austin, John Autry and LaWana Mayfield. Democrat Vi Lyles could not be reached Friday.

Democrat Greg Phipps plans to vote against it.

“I’m not going to be able to support it,” he said. “I’m disappointed with something as potentially far-reaching as this we’re not going to spend as much time as we should reaching out to the community.”

Joining Phipps in opposition are expected to be Republicans Kenny Smith and Ed Driggs. Democrat Michael Barnes will say only that he has reservations.

“I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me concerned about their children being in the bathroom with adults of the opposite sex,” Barnes said. “The balancing act is, how do we properly address the concerns of the people who want it passed and the concerns of people concerned about their kids, and women concerned about their own safety in the bathroom?”

Democrat Claire Fallon said the public hasn’t really had time to weigh the so-called bathroom provision.

“I have feelings for what the LGBT people have gone through, and I don’t want to make their lives harder,” she said. “But I also don’t want to impose something on the general public that they don’t understand and don’t want.”

Democrat David Howard, who voted to put the issue on the agenda, said he’s trying to find a compromise. He’s heard from both sides – including his wife and daughters, who have raised concerns.

Patrick Pearson, a spokesman for Don’t Do It Charlotte, the group leading opposition to the ordinance, has said the anti campaign’s late start and other factors made defeating the measure “an uphill battle.”

On Friday, Bishop of MeckPAC, the group spearheading support for the ordinance, said he still believed that “we have the votes we believe we need to have.”

Supporters hope Monday night will tell a different story than in 1992, when the council voted 7-4 against a recommendation by the city’s Community Relations Commission that nondiscrimination protections be extended to include sexual orientation.

Voting in the minority that year was Democrat Dan Clodfelter, who is now mayor. Voting with the majority was Republican Pat McCrory, now the state’s governor.

Morrill: 704-358-5059

Funk: 704-358-5703

Email avalanche

Excerpts from some of the 39,000 emails received by city officials:

For the ordinance

▪ “I urge you to support our city’s proposed nondiscrimination ordinance as is. … I believe we have an excellent opportunity to say to ourselves and others that the people of our city believe in equality for all.”

▪ “I believe this addition is necessary to protect the freedoms of individuals who might not be recognized by our dominant culture’s view of sexual identity.”

Against the ordinance

▪ “As a woman who was victimized by one of these evil predators when I was a child, you have no idea the Pandora’s Box you would be opening.”

▪ “I am against this. I would not be comfortable visiting Charlotte for shopping, concerts, or any other reason in the future if this passes. Please do not support it.” Gavin Off

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