The one thing that could stop N.C. lawmakers from ‘saving’ Charlotte’s bathrooms

By the Observer editorial board

Supporters and opposition to the proposed non-discrimination ordinance hold up signs at a Charlotte City Council meeting prior to the passage of an expanded anti-discrimination ordinance.
Supporters and opposition to the proposed non-discrimination ordinance hold up signs at a Charlotte City Council meeting prior to the passage of an expanded anti-discrimination ordinance. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

In Georgia, a religious liberty bill passed by lawmakers last week sits on the desk of Gov. Nathan Deal. He hasn’t signed it yet. He’s not sure he will.

You’ll probably recognize the bill. It would, among other things, allow religious organizations to deny employment or the use of facilities based on religious beliefs or practices.

It’s similar to religious freedom bills that many state legislatures, including North Carolina’s, have contemplated in recent years. The most noteworthy example: Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which brought a crush of unwanted attention, much of it from corporate America.

That’s what’s happening now in Georgia, too. On Saturday, a leading gay rights group, Human Rights Campaign, called on Hollywood to stop spending $1 billion-plus a year on filming in Georgia. One day earlier, the NFL suggested that the law might hurt Atlanta’s chances at hosting a Super Bowl.

Add to that the protests of several hundred other businesses, including Fortune 500 companies Google, Microsoft and Bank of America, and it’s easy to understand Deal’s unease with putting his signature on the bill.

It’s also the one thing, at this point, that might stop N.C. Republican lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory from voiding a new Charlotte ordinance that allows transgender people to choose the restrooms they use based on the gender with which they identify.

This week, lawmakers are set to spend $42,000 a day on a special session in Raleigh to override the bathroom provision for all businesses, not just religious organizations.

Never mind that in the 200 or so cities that have passed similar ordinances, there have been zero incidents of people preying on women and children in bathrooms. Never mind that a straight guy walking into a women’s restroom is still trespassing in Charlotte, same as always. Lawmakers are intent on the spectacle of a special session on bathrooms, which amounts to big, fat political ad, paid for by taxpayers.

McCrory, who’s in a tight race for governor, is ready to sign the bill. The only thing that might pause his pen is the same kind of corporate pushback that we’re seeing in Georgia. Something like the NCAA declaring that it might think twice about conducting future basketball tournaments in Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh. Or the NFL saying that Charlotte might move down the list of potential Super Bowl cities. Or Apple wondering if it should cross North Carolina off the list for future data center investments.

But thus far, there’s been no significant corporate backlash to lawmakers voiding Charlotte’s bathroom provision. Why? It’s not that corporate leaders disagree with Charlotte’s ordinance. Many of the city’s top employers, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo, already have LGBT protections in place for their employees. Bank of America Stadium, BB&T Ballpark and Charlotte Motor Speedway all allow transgender men and women to use the restroom of their gender identity.

But corporate North Carolina and corporate America aren’t standing up for transgender protections the same way they’re standing against religious liberty bills that threaten gay rights.

At least not yet. Consider this: When North Carolina considered its own religious liberty bill last year, lawmakers fretted about the same kind of corporate backlash that came down on Indiana. But just three years before, legislators had fewer such fears in crafting Amendment One, which banned same-sex marriage.

That’s how far society and business have come in a remarkably short time on gay rights. Transgender rights, on the other hand, are in their relative infancy.

Maybe this battle will be shorter. Maybe transgender men and women can ride the tailwind of gay rights successes and society’s increasing intolerance of sexual discrimination. Corporate leaders can help lead the push on that.

Because while Republican lawmakers don’t always have an ear for those who suffer from discrimination, they do have a particular sensitivity to the sound of corporate dollars. It’s time for those dollars to speak in North Carolina.