More than two years after a law limiting local protections for gay rights in North Carolina was enacted, leaders remain sharply split over whether House Bill 2 was needed and what protections should be afforded to LGBTQ people.
A narrow majority of NC Influencers surveyed said municipalities in the state should be able to extend nondiscrimination protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people if they want, an option that’s currently blocked under state law. But it’s clear that the legacy of House Bill 2, which became known as the “bathroom bill,” remains deeply divisive.
Some Republican respondents said HB2 was a common-sense measure to correct overreach by Charlotte’s government. A majority of survey respondents, including all Democrats, said it was an unnecessary piece of legislation that furthered discrimination.
“I believe that the whole process was unfortunate and could have been handled much differently,” said Bishop Claude Alexander, who leads The Park Church in Charlotte. “Sides sought to make political points which only hurt the state as a whole.”
For the past several months, The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun have been surveying 60 influential North Carolinians on topics from gun control to marijuana legalization to gerrymandering. The group of NC Influencers includes past governors, university presidents, business and nonprofit leaders, philanthropists and authors.
The state legislature passed HB2 in 2016 to counteract a Charlotte ordinance protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination and allowing transgender people to use public restrooms that matched their gender identity. Opponents said the Charlotte ordinance would make it legal for criminals to follow women and children into bathrooms.
HB2 preempted local protections for LGBTQ people and forbade local nondiscrimination ordinances. It also blocked cities from setting their own minimum wage laws. Backlash to the bill was swift: Businesses criticized North Carolina, the NBA moved the All-Star Game out of Charlotte, the NCAA ruled the state couldn’t host future tournaments and PayPal canceled a 400-job expansion announced for Charlotte, among other moves.
In 2017, a compromise bill partially repealed HB2. The bill took HB2 off the books, while putting a moratorium on cities passing their own nondiscrimination ordinances through 2020.
While some LGBTQ advocates and some HB2 backers were unhappy with the measure, groups like the NBA and NCAA said they were satisfied and restored events to North Carolina. The firestorm of criticism from national companies like Apple and American Airlines also stopped.
Controversy remains, however. There was no clear consensus among the NC Influencers on whether a business should be allowed to refuse serve to LGBTQ people if it conflicts with their beliefs.
In a narrow ruling this summer, the Supreme Court sided with a Colorado baker who wouldn’t bake a cake for a gay marriage, citing his Christian beliefs. But the narrow rulling left unsettled broader constitutional questions about whether religious beliefs are a valid basis for denying service to some people.
Hugh McColl, former Bank of America chairman and CEO, said North Carolina “should require no discrimination of anyone receiving a license to do business in our state.”
Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, agreed.
“While we each have the right to our own religious beliefs those freedoms don’t give anyone the right to discriminate against or harm other people,” he said. “When businesses open their doors to the public, they must open them to everyone on the same terms. Discriminatory business practices hurt the economy overall by limiting people’s spending power.”
Others said business owners should have the right to follow their conscience and religious beliefs when it comes to who they choose not to serve.
“One of the founding principles of the United States was freedom of religion and as such a business owner should be allowed to exercise that faith in their businesses,” said Pearl Burris-Floyd, secretary of the UNC Board of Governors.
Former Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican, agreed.
“The First Amendment provides that there shall be no law restricting the free exercise of religion,” he said.
Brooks Bell, Raleigh-based founder of a consulting firm, said businesses should be able to choose who they serve, but for a slightly different reason.
“As a business owner, I should be able to choose who I do work with,” said Bell. “For instance, I should not be forced to work with a tobacco company or the RNC.”
Others said the issue is personal.
“As a gay man, I know all too well the reality and pain of discrimination,” said Bob Page, CEO of Greensboro-based Replacements Ltd. “LBGTQ people deserve the same civil rights and protections afforded other North Carolinians.”
HB2: Necessary or foolish?
Now that the dust has mostly settled around HB2, there’s still plenty of disagreement about the law’s origins and necessity.
Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who signed HB2 while governor, said the law was necessary to overturn Charlotte’s ordinance, which he said was “a ridiculous and unlawful bathroom ordinance” and “local government overreach.”
“The separate issue of gender identity and gender expression needs further legal definition,” McCrory, a Republican, said. “Former Mayor Jennifer Roberts and past City Council supported a change in new gender identity and expression language which lacked legal definition and countered basic, established medical science.”
Martin said it was Charlotte’s nondiscrimintation ordinance that was itself unnecessary.
“There was no problem at all until outside activists persuaded the Charlotte City Council to promote this as a political issue,” he said.
Martin also said hate crime laws shouldn’t be expanded to cover LGBTQ North Carolinians as a new category.
“Hate crimes violate existing laws, with no need for separating us further into innumerable, self-selected victim categories,” he said.
Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, a Republican, said HB2 “was needed to prohibit governments like Charlotte from imposing ‘bathroom ordinances’ on private businesses at a time when there was no need whatsoever for such legislation.”
On the other hand, a majority of respondents scoffed at the rationale for HB2. McColl said HB2 wasn’t necessary to protect anyone in North Carolina’s bathrooms.
“It is a non-issue with no evidence of safety or privacy being invaded,” he said.
Walter Dalton, president of Isothermal Community College and former lieutenant governor, agreed.
“House Bill 2, in my opinion, was driven to do political reasons and not policy concerns,” said Dalton, a Democrat.
Former Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, said HB2 was “unnecessary and intended to hit a political hot button.”
Que Tucker, commissioner of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, also said HB2 wasn’t needed.
“I believe protecting women and children in a bathroom — or anywhere else — is covered under current law,” she said.
McColl said North Carolina should expand its hate crime laws to include LGBTQ individuals.
“Why not, a hate crime is a hate crime,” he said. “Let’s make NC safe for everyone.”
Nancy Webb and Charlotte Observer staff writer Gavin Off contributed