Politics & Government

Charlotte is again weighing LGBT protections. Here’s what the rules would do.

Supporters of Don't Do It Charlotte and supporters of the LGBT community talk during a rally opposed to the proposed non-discrimination ordinance outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center prior to the start of the Charlotte City Council on Monday, March 2, 2015.
Supporters of Don't Do It Charlotte and supporters of the LGBT community talk during a rally opposed to the proposed non-discrimination ordinance outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center prior to the start of the Charlotte City Council on Monday, March 2, 2015. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The debate in Charlotte over adding legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender residents has begun again, less than a year after the City Council narrowly rejected expanding its non-discrimination ordinance in a divisive 6-5 vote.

Almost all of the public debate has focused on the “bathroom issue,” in which transgender residents would be able to use the restroom for the gender with which they identify.

That will likely be the most controversial part of expanding an existing nondiscrimination ordinance again. Council members are scheduled to discuss the issue Monday, though a vote wouldn’t take place until later this month or in March.

But expanding the ordinance also includes other provisions. Here is what it would do:

Q: What is in place today?

A: The proposal is to expand the city’s existing nondiscrimination ordinance, which was first passed in 1968 – four years after the landmark federal Civil Rights Act.

The 1968 ordinance prohibits discrimination at places of public accommodation based on someone’s race, religion and national origin.

In 1972, the ordinance was amended to add gender as a protected class.

In 1984, city staff was concerned that the provision prohibiting discrimination based on gender could be interpreted to mean all bathrooms and locker rooms had to be shared by both sexes. That year the city council approved new language to make those areas exempt.

In 1992, council members voted 7-4 against adding sexual orientation as a protected class. Voting no was then council member Pat McCrory. Voting yes was former mayor Dan Clodfelter.

During that vote, the proposed language didn’t include transgender protections.

Federal law prohibits discrimination in public places based on race.

But there are no state, federal or city of Charlotte protections for LGBT residents.

Q: What would the ordinance do?

A: It would apply mostly to places of public accommodation – such as stores, restaurants and bars. Private clubs, like country clubs, would be exempt.

The nondiscrimination ordinance applies to how businesses treat customers. It doesn’t impact an employer’s relationship with his or her workers.

Here is a hypothetical:

A gay man applies for a job at a store. The owner tells him he won’t hire him because he’s gay.

Under federal, state and Charlotte city ordinance, that’s OK. And it would remain OK even if the ordinance is expanded.

But that same man could return to the store as a customer. If the owner refused him service because of his sexual orientation, the owner would run afoul of the expanded ordinance.

That is the case today. Customers can be refused service because they are gay or transgender.

Q: What could the city do?

A: The ordinance calls for the city’s Community Relations Committee to conduct an investigation and act as a mediator. The city can’t revoke a business license because someone doesn’t comply with the ordinance.

But violating the ordinance is a misdemeanor, and the city could seek an injunction against the business.

The city’s biggest “stick” comes as the ordinance relates to taxi cabs and limousines. If a driver is found to have refused service to someone who is gay, lesbian or transgender, the city could revoke his license.

The city could also refuse to award contracts to a business that has been found to violate the ordinance.

Q: Is it needed?

A: Members of the LGBT community said a common problem is that a vendor will agree to provide them a service, and then back out when the business learns the event is a gay or transgender event.

Some opponents say they object to homosexuality on religious grounds, and that the ordinance would codify something they are opposed to.

The bathroom issue has been described as a safety issue – on both sides.

People born as male but who identify as or express themselves as female are harassed and can be assaulted in men’s bathrooms.

On the other side, opponents of the expanded ordinance say they worry about their own safety in women’s restrooms, specifically the well-being of their children. They worry a pedophile would use the ordinance as cover to enter women’s bathrooms.

LGBT ordinances are common in the nation’s largest cities.

But Charlotte isn’t alone in its being a divisive issue. Houston approved LGBT protections, but voters overturned the ordinance in November after an 18-month fight.

Q: Is there support on the council?

A: In March 2015, a majority of council members first signaled they would support the full expanded ordinance, including the bathroom provision.

But as the vote drew closer, council members believed they didn’t have support for the entire ordinance.

A motion was made to remove the bathroom provision while keeping other protections for gay, lesbian and transgender residents.

But two council members – John Autry and LaWana Mayfield – said they would only support the full ordinance. They voted no, and the amended ordinance was voted down 6-5.

Since that vote, a new council has been seated with two new members. At least eight of 11 members have said they support the full ordinance.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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