Anti-discrimination law elicits rebukes from businesses
Published 7:49 am Friday, March 25, 2016
By Emery P. Dalesio and Gary D. Robertson
RALEIGH — Corporations expressed disappointment and the NCAA vowed to monitor what North Carolina does next now that the state has banned any local government measures protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
American Airlines, which operates its second-largest hub in Charlotte; IBM and Biogen, which have facilities in the state’s Research Triangle; and payments processor PayPal, which had announced plans to hire 400 people in Charlotte only last week, were among major employers condemning the new law Thursday.
The legislature called a special session Wednesday to void a Charlotte ordinance that would have enabled transgender people to legally use restrooms aligned with their gender identity, and would have provided broad protections against discrimination in public accommodations in the state’s largest city.
The new law now prevents the state’s cities and counties from passing their own anti-discrimination rules, and instead imposes a statewide standard that leaves out sexual orientation and gender identity.
North Carolina is the first state to require public school and university students to use only those bathrooms that match their birth certificates, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
The state law “is a clear step backwards. Sad day,” tweeted Jim Whitehurst, chief executive of Raleigh-based open-source software company Red Hat.
The economic impact will take time to quantify. There were no immediate threats to withdraw business from the state, which has seen booming growth and an influx of “knowledge workers” in Charlotte and Raleigh, even as rural towns lag behind economically.
Other businesses have voiced support for the measure Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law late Wednesday, a spokesman for his re-election campaign said. Spokesman Ricky Diaz did not respond when asked which businesses backed the governor’s decision.
About 200 protesters blocked a downtown Raleigh street in front of the state’s Executive Mansion Thursday evening. Police said in a statement that five people were arrested after they sat down in the street and refused orders to disperse.
McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, stays in the mansion while in the state capital but was not there at the time of the protest, spokesman Josh Ellis said.
Demonstrators like Alex Berkman complained that lawmakers acted quickly before Charlotte’s example could be adopted by other communities.
“The way that these things work is that one place will pass a law and then another place will pass a law and then we start to build momentum,” said Berkman, 29, of Raleigh.
Democrats warned that North Carolina risks losing billions in federal education dollars by conflicting with Title IX anti-discrimination regulations that apply in public schools. Republican lawmakers downplayed the threat Wednesday.
The NCAA, which is scheduled to hold men’s basketball tournament games in Greensboro in 2017 and Charlotte in 2018, said it takes diversity into account when it chooses its event sites. The National Basketball Association said it is too early to know if the new law will affect Charlotte hosting the league’s all-star game in 2017.
Supporters say the new law protects all people from having to share bathrooms with people who make them feel unsafe. Advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights say it demonizes them with bogus claims about bathroom risks.
“The disappointment, anger and fear many are feeling today is beyond words. What’s worse is this will likely not be our last defeat,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin wrote in an online column Thursday.
Bathroom use has proved to be a potent wedge issue across the country since Houston’s anti-discrimination law was overwhelmingly voted down in a referendum last year, but LGBT advocates have had some victories, too. South Dakota’s legislature failed to override Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s veto of a bill requiring students to use bathrooms corresponding to their birth gender, and a similar bill in Tennessee bill died Tuesday.
The LGBT movement won’t likely table the bathroom issue to focus on other areas of discrimination, said Katherine Franke, a Columbia university law professor and director of the school’s Gender and Sexuality Law center.
“The issues of discrimination and violence against transgender people in the context of bathrooms are so overwhelming, that to them it is a cutting-edge problem,” she said. “Overwhelmingly, it’s transgender people who are the victims of violence in the bathroom setting. … This is a basic human need.”
Instead, advocates will likely try to win more acceptance from society about transgender people and their particular challenges, said Dru Levasseur, director of Transgender Rights Project at the civil rights group Lambda Legal. “The LGBT movement is right now focusing its efforts on educating people about who transgender people are, and that is the antidote to this battle,” Levasseur said.
The issue won’t likely go away as North Carolina’s Democratic Attorney General, Roy Cooper, tries to unseat McCrory in November. Republicans see the law as protecting business owners who have a religious objection to gays and lesbians, and political differences with liberal local governments. Democrats see the law as proof that the GOP won’t protect minorities.
But corporate America could tip the scale, said Michael Bitzer, political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, northeast of Charlotte.
“If businesses are starting to look at North Carolina and says this is not the environment we want to be in, that could have some blowback, and McCrory would be in the bull’s-eye,” Bitzer said.
Thursday evening, state and national gay-rights advocates joined about 400 people at a Raleigh church to vow to fight on when the General Assembly reconvenes next month and in November at the ballot box to elect Cooper and throw out legislators who voted for the law.
There also will be legal challenges. “We are going to court as soon as possible,” said Sarah Preston with the American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina.