Gov. McCrory will retreat on House Bill 2, just a matter of when and how

Gov. McCrory releases video statement on HB2

VIDEO: North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory released a video statement Tuesday, March 29, 2016 on HB2, a new law that strikes down locally enacted protections for lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
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VIDEO: North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory released a video statement Tuesday, March 29, 2016 on HB2, a new law that strikes down locally enacted protections for lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

It’s not a question of whether, it’s a question of when Gov. Pat McCrory will retreat on House Bill 2.

There really isn’t any way for him to continue to stand behind what is being called the most sweeping anti-LGBT law in the nation. He and other supporters of HB2 are stressing the law as a “bathroom bill” that in the words of Senate leader Phil Berger will keep “grown men” out of women’s bathrooms. If Republican lawmakers had confined themselves to that aspect, they might have a stronger case focused on a small group and supported by a broader constituency.

But that’s not what they did. Instead, they refused to include sexual orientation on a list of what is protected from discrimination in North Carolina and barred local governments from including sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination ordinances. That has put state law at odds with far more than transgender people seeking to use the bathroom that matches the gender with which they identify. That has put North Carolina at odds with all gay rights.

Public attitudes on gay rights, including gay marriage, have surged toward acceptance faster than anyone, including gay people, expected. McCrory’s stand against it now makes him look not so much like the misguided states-rights governors of the past, but more like the medieval King Canute, who thought he could hold back the tide.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality, came to The News & Observer last week after meeting with McCrory. Griffin didn’t say much about his conversation with the governor, but he hardly seemed worried. He might have been pleased. He said, in effect, that the longer this goes on, the better it is for HB2’s opponents.

Griffin thinks his side has the legal and moral high ground and corporate opposition to HB2 is building. The Human Rights Campaign announced on Tuesday it had signatures from more than 80 CEOs opposed to the new law, but by the time Griffin delivered it to McCrory on Thursday the list had grown to over 100. By Friday it was 120 and growing. This dispute will be a fundraising and publicity bonanza for the Human Rights Campaign and North Carolina gay-rights groups such as Equality NC.

McCrory can try to deny this tide, but he better be a good swimmer. And in these political waters, he decidedly is not. Last week, McCrory flailed through a press conference, a Fox News interview and even his own scripted video. Though he kept talking about “common sense” and protecting an “expectation of privacy” in the bathroom, he did not seem to grasp the sweep of what he had hurriedly signed into law following a one-day special session.

The governor tried to attach his cause to the enthusiasm about the UNC Tar Heels playing in the Final Four in Houston. He said he’d be rooting them on as they played in a city where voters just rescinded a city ordinance allowing transgender people to use a public bathroom that matches the gender they identify with. But the comparison wasn’t apt. If the Charlotte ordinance that prompted HB2 had been negated by referendum, that would have been broadly accepted and would have drawn little national interest. But North Carolina acted by legislative fiat, not only against Charlotte, but against all local governments in a way that leaves all gay people vulnerable to discrimination.

McCrory fell back on anti-regulation and business freedom language that suggests he does not understand the difference between civil rights and regulations. He said “business should decide, not government.” But there are rights that supersede a business’ prerogative. A restaurant can’t deny service to someone because of their race. A hotel can’t turn away a customer because he or she is disabled. And, it now seems clear everywhere except North Carolina, a business shouldn’t be able to fire someone or deny them service because they are gay.

What’s remarkable about the HB2 fiasco is that it has stirred as much humor as anger. This law was put together so clumsily and signed so swiftly that it looks like a parody of clueless Southern legislators trying to wall off the world. Notably, even those who support the bathroom limits can’t get worked up about HB2. It’s hard to defend a law no one was asked about, that takes a swing at all gay people, usurps local governments’ power to pass nondiscrimination laws of their choosing, bars discrimination cases of all sorts from the state court system and forbids, just for the heck of it, local governments from setting a minimum wage higher than the state’s, a paltry $7.25 an hour.

Despite differences over portions of the law, liberals and conservatives can agree that it was ineptly drawn, improperly rushed and reflexively defended, much to the detriment of the state’s reputation and, increasingly, its economy.

McCrory has been awkward in handling the heat from HB2. But it’s not too late to do what’s right by admitting that HB2 gets too much wrong.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com