The N.C. General Assembly on Wednesday approved a bill that invalidates local governments’ legal protections for LGBT individuals, doing far more than striking down a controversial provision that allowed transgendered people to use the bathroom of the gender for which they identify.
Within hours, the legislation was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, dealing a blow to the LGBT movement after success with protections in cities across the country.
The vote in the House was 84-25 after three hours of debate, with all Republicans voting for it and 11 Democrats breaking ranks with their party to support the bill.
In the Senate the vote was 32-0 after the Democrats walked out in protest, saying they had not been allowed to participate in the process.
“We witness an affront to democracy,” said Democratic Senator Dan Blue of Raleigh, the minority leader. “We will not be silent.”
Last year in Indiana, there was a nationwide uproar over a “Religious Freedom” law that critics said would make it easy for businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Critics of the N.C. bill, passed in a one-day special session, said it was perhaps the most “anti-LGBT legislation” in the nation.
Dana Fenton, the city of Charlotte’s lobbyist, said the bill would “invalidate” the city’s newly expanded nondiscrimination ordinance, passed in a 7-4 City Council vote in February. He said he believes the state’s largest employers will lobby the governor to veto it.
“I think you will see corporations, not just those in N.C., weighing in on this,” he said. “I think they will put pressure on the governor.”
The full bill wasn’t publicly revealed until Wednesday morning. Until then, it was unclear whether the legislators would target only the bathroom provision, or whether they would go farther and strike down the rest of the ordinance.
The impetus of the special session was a provision in Charlotte’s expanded nondiscrimination ordinance that would allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender with which they identify. Critics said it was “social engineering” to allow people born as biological males into women’s restrooms. They said legislation is needed to correct Charlotte’s “overreach” and to protect the safety of women and children.
The bill would prohibit any such bathroom flexibility.
But it also would keep Charlotte and any other municipality from adding new protections for gays, lesbians or transgender individuals.
In N.C. today, there are no legal protections for gays and lesbians. That means a private business in Charlotte or anywhere else in the state can refuse to serve someone who is gay, and a bakery could refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay wedding.
In Charlotte, that would have changed as of April 1, when the expanded ordinance is scheduled to go into effect.
The bill would not explicitly say that can continue. But in prohibiting cities and towns from adding LGBT protections, it would in a sense allow businesses the ability to make more decisions as to whom they do and don’t serve.
The only protected classes recognized by the state would be race, color, national original and biological sex.
The legislation could put McCrory in a difficult position.
He has said he is opposes the provision in Charlotte’s ordinance that allows transgenders to use a men’s or women’s bathroom. But he declined to call the special session, saying he was worried legislators would go beyond eliminating the bathroom flexibility.
If the bill passes, he has 30 days to sign it or issue a veto.
McCrory’s Democratic opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, called the bill discriminatory.
“Discrimination is wrong, period,” he said. “That North Carolina is making discrimination part of the law is shameful. It will not only cause real harm to families, but to our economy as well.”
State Rep. Dan Bishop, a Charlotte Republican who sponsored the bill, said the the legislature would have likely not convened had Charlotte passed a nondiscrimination ordinance that included protections for LGBT individuals, but didn’t allow for the bathroom flexibility.
“We might not be here today,” he said.
But when asked why the bill does more then strike down the bathroom flexibility, Bishop said it made sense to keep the state in line with the protected classes recognized by the federal government. There is no federal civil rights legislation that protects LGBT individuals.
Bishop and other legislators said some cities – such as New York – have created numerous new protected classes, which have become too cumbersome on business.
During the debate, Bishop said a “handful of radicals” on the City Council passed the legislation, which he said was a “subversion of the rule of law.”
During a committee meeting Wednesday morning, Bishop said a business that allows transgender individuals to use a men’s or women’s restroom wouldn’t be impacted. The business could continue with that internal policy, he said.
But a business could not be required by ordinance to make accommodations for someone who is transgender.
The bill also prohibits K-12 public schools, and publicly funded universities and colleges from having multi-stall transgender bathrooms. Critics said that could jeopardize federal funding for education.
The only transgender people who would be exempt would be for someone who has had the sex on their birth certificate legally changed.
One opponent of the bill told senators that the legislation would have unintended consequences. The speaker asked them to consider the case of someone born as a female, but who now identifies as a man, with a beard made possible through hormones. That person will be required to use a women’s bathroom.
State Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Matthews Democrat, said legislators shouldn’t be involved.
“This time we are here to meddle in the affairs of local government and disrespect local leaders,” she said. “This is to advance some political careers and tarnish other political careers.”
A Senate committee Wednesdsay began discussing the bill. A proposed amendment to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes failed.
“We came here to undue what happened in one county,” said Sen. Warren Daniel, a Republican from Morganton, who voted against the amendment. “We would we extend that across the state?”
Sen. Buck Newton, a Wilson Republican who is running for attorney general, said legislators were responding to “thousands and thousands” of e-mails and phone calls.
“The city of Charlotte knew they didn’t have the authority to do this,” he said. “They wanted to do it anyway.”
Under the bill, the city of Charlotte could continue an internal policy prohibiting LGBT discrimination for its own employees.
The bill would also prohibit cities and towns from enacting a minimum wage in their jurisdictions. That prohibition already exists today.
The city of Charlotte said it wouldn’t comment on the pending legislation until after the special session ends.
Colin Campbell and Craig Jarvis of The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed to this story.