The obvious choice N.C. now faces on HB 2

The Observer editorial board

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory listens to a question Wednesday night at the N.C. Chamber Annual Government Affairs Conference in Raleigh.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory listens to a question Wednesday night at the N.C. Chamber Annual Government Affairs Conference in Raleigh. TNS

The time for cable TV appearances and morning radio rants should be over now. The debate over bathrooms and predators, misguided as it was, is moot.

On Wednesday, N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice informing him that North Carolina’s House Bill 2 violates the U.S. Civil Rights Act and Title IX. If the state does not significantly change or repeal HB 2, it could face the loss of billions of dollars in federal money.

The letter, signed by top DOJ civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta, provides McCrory and the N.C. legislature a suddenly clear choice on HB 2: They can invite significant new penalties for our state, or they can continue to pretend that HB 2 is an issue to debate and a political fight to wage.

It’s not. As the DOJ letter spelled out, HB 2 is breaking the law.

This is not some far-left interpretation of sexuality and civil rights statutes. As Gupta detailed, it’s the determination of administrative agencies and federal courts, including the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled just last month that transgender individuals must be treated consistent with their gender identity.

That ruling and others, by the way, lay waste to the notion that radical Charlotte forced the chaos of HB 2 upon North Carolina. By passing an ordinance that gave transgender individuals their choice of bathrooms, Charlotte merely affirmed what agencies and earlier court rulings had already determined. McCrory and Republicans chose to escalate matters, despite warnings that the Feds might be watching.

Now the governor has been offered an escape. He and legislators can say that DOJ has left them no choice on bathrooms. They can repeal all of HB 2, including the equally awful removal of discrimination protections for gays and lesbians.

The biggest obstacle to that path: N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, the powerful Republican who remained publicly defiant Wednesday about HB 2. If McCrory can’t persuade Berger to take the opportunity DOJ is offering, he should attempt to build a coalition of lawmakers who understand North Carolina needs HB 2 to be repealed. It’s what leaders do.

The governor offered discouraging clues late Wednesday about those next steps. Speaking to business leaders in Raleigh, McCrory nodded to the reality that changes in HB 2 are needed, but he suggested the Obama administration was coordinating with the “well-oiled machine” of the left to target North Carolina.

It was a response that didn’t acknowledge how the HB 2 landscape has now changed. It’s no longer about the “dialogue” that McCrory suddenly wants to have on bathrooms. It’s not about the political left smearing North Carolina, as he’s claimed on cable and radio. It’s about the law.

Yes, the governor and legislature can defy DOJ. North Carolina is fresh off a legal victory regarding the state’s sweeping voting laws. Standing up to the Obama administration over bathrooms is surely tempting.

But doing so not only will risk billions in federal money, it will cement North Carolina’s tattered national reputation. We will be a state that so badly wants to discriminate that we went to court for it.

Wednesday’s letter should have clarified that for the governor and legislators. There is no debate left to have over transgender individuals and N.C. bathrooms. There is a choice:

Our state can obey federal law.

Or we can fight – and lose in so many ways.

North Carolina repealed HB2 in 2017 but left intact some of its provisions. But with Charlotte’s reputation tainted, the city is still paying to market itself to visitors.