After more than three hours of impassioned public comment Monday night, Charlotte City Council approved new legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people – a decision that will likely provoke a battle with the General Assembly, which could nullify the city’s historic vote.
Council members approved expanding the city’s existing nondiscrimination ordinance in a 7-4 vote.
The decision elicited cheers and hugs from supporters, many carrying signs that read “Facts Not Fear.” Opponents of the ordinance, many with signs that read, “Don’t Do It Charlotte,” were upset by the decision.
The changes mean businesses in Charlotte can’t discriminate against gay, lesbian or transgender customers, in addition to long-standing protections based on race, age, religion and gender. The ordinance applies to places of public accommodation, such as bars, restaurants and stores. It also applies to taxis.
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The most controversial part of the ordinance would allow transgender residents to use either a men’s or women’s bathroom, depending on the gender with which they identify.
The bathroom provision sparked the most opposition, with opponents mostly worried about the safety of women and girls in a public bathroom with people who were born male. Supporters said those fears were overblown, and that transgender people are at risk of violence in the bathroom.
In an email Sunday, Gov. Pat McCrory said the bathroom provision would likely cause “immediate” action by legislators.
In North Carolina, the General Assembly has the ultimate power over municipalities. Legislators could strike down the entire ordinance, or they could eliminate the provision that allows for bathroom flexibility. They also could send the issue to voters to decide in a referendum.
Council members have acknowledged that Raleigh may trump their decision Monday. But supporters said it was important to pass an expanded ordinance.
A year ago, the ordinance failed in a 6-5 vote.
But two new at-large members – Julie Eiselt and James Mitchell – were elected to the council in November, and both supported the ordinance.
Democrat Al Austin voted for the ordinance.
“Are we a city that panders to fear and hate to those who wish to perpetuate fear and injustice?” Austin asked. “I say to you, ‘Not on my watch.’ ”
Democrat Patsy Kinsey, who voted for the ordinance, likened the ordinance’s passage to her efforts more than a decade ago to bring domestic partner benefits to same-sex city employees.
Eiselt criticized the speakers who opposed the ordinance. She said if they were her church, she “wouldn’t return.”
Republican Ed Driggs voted against the ordinance. He said the bathroom provision is troubling.
“Everyone is required to use the bathroom of their gender – you can’t get more equal than that,” Driggs said. “It’s not the back of the bus.”
Driggs was joined by Democrats Claire Fallon and Greg Phipps and Republican Kenny Smith in voting no.
Earlier this year, Fallon said she would vote for the ordinance. She said she couldn’t support the bathroom provision Monday.
The council’s main chamber, which holds 250 people, was closed by the Fire Department because it reached capacity. The city placed people in overflow rooms in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, and other people filled the outdoor plaza behind the building.
Shortly before 7 p.m., the council began hearing from 140 speakers.
Jeanette Wilson of Charlotte, who opposed the ordinance, shouted at Mayor Jennifer Roberts and council members.
“Real discrimination happened at a lunch counter in Greensboro,” she said.
She added: “Mayor, your community forum was a sham!”
Wilson was referring to a meeting the city held in which supporters and opponents of the ordinance were asked to break into small groups and discuss the issue.
Lara Nazario, who was born a man but who identifies as a woman, said she wants to use the bathroom that corresponds with her gender identity.
“Is it my height or my Adam’s apple that makes me less of a human being?” she said. “I don’t want special treatment. I only want to be treated equally.”
Supporter John Arrowood, an attorney, said: “Discrimination against LGBT people is real. … We’ve seen the opposition focus on fear-mongering which has no basis in fact.”
Another speaker, Pam Burton of Charlotte, urged council to vote no.
“Please don’t discriminate against me and my children,” she said. “I’m not scared of transgenders, but sexual predators will see this as a chance for fresh victims. If one child becomes a victim through this, shame on all of you.”
Earlier, Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, urged Christians to come to Monday’s meeting and speak against the proposed ordinance.
He said the bathroom provision is “wicked and it’s filthy.”
The expanded ordinance would be the first of its kind in North Carolina. Three South Carolina cities have similar ordinances: Columbia, Charleston and Myrtle Beach.
It’s unclear what the Republican-controlled legislature will do, though they will have a number of options. They also will have almost unlimited power, and the ability to nullify all or parts of the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance.
The city’s ordinance will go into effect April 1.
Legislators, who will start a new session in May, could have three options if they wish to overturn the city’s decision.
▪ They could nullify the entire ordinance as it pertains to gay, lesbian and transgender people. That would include the bathroom provision, but also protections in places of public accommodation.
This would be the most controversial path.
Last year, two Charlotte Republicans, state Reps. Dan Bishop and Jacqueline Schaffer, proposed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which could have thwarted LGBT protections.
But the bill split House Republicans, and McCrory expressed reservations about it. A number of large businesses, including American Airlines, also expressed reservations.
The bill died in April.
In an interview Monday before the council vote, Bishop said it was too soon to say what path he might choose if Charlotte passed the full nondiscrimination ordinance.
“I don’t want to go to war with Charlotte,” he said.
But he added he wanted to protect small businesses, and said legislators would likely consider some measure to overturn the ordinance.
▪ The General Assembly could let most of the ordinance stand, through passing legislation that would eliminate the provision allowing transgender residents to use a men’s or women’s bathroom.
In an email to two Republican council members Sunday, McCrory focused on that part of the city proposal.
“It is not only the citizens of Charlotte that will be impacted by changing basic restroom and locker room norms but also citizens from across our state and nation who visit and work in Charlotte,” McCrory wrote in the email. “This shift in policy could also create major public safety issues by putting citizens in possible danger from deviant actions by individuals taking improper advantage of a bad policy.”
▪ Legislators could hand the issue to voters.
In 2007, a citizen-led petition drive led to a new vote on whether to repeal the half-cent sales tax for transit. The effort failed.
For the nondiscrimination ordinance, there is no procedure at the moment for a petition drive to have a new vote on the issue, said City Attorney Bob Hagemann.
But the General Assembly could pass legislation to allow Charlotteans to petition for a referendum. Legislators could also vote to place the issue directly on a citywide ballot.
Bishop said he believed that could happen quickly, possibly as early as the November ballot. That’s when the governor, Senate and president will also be on the ballot.
Staff writer Mark Price contributed.