Moratorium over: NC towns advance LGBT protections

Published 11:55 pm Tuesday, January 12, 2021

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

RALEIGH — The first North Carolina municipalities are acting to expand LGBT rights again a month since the expiration of a moratorium on nondiscrimination ordinances agreed to years ago as a compromise to do away with the state’s “bathroom bill.”

The governing board of Hillsborough, a town of 7,000 about 40 miles northwest of Raleigh, voted unanimously this week to approve new protections for people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and other differences.

Those rules make it unlawful — punishable by a misdemeanor and $500 fines — for businesses of other entities within the town limits to discriminate on these and other characteristics in employment and in offering goods and services to the public, including lodging and dining. Hillsborough’s ordinance marks the first by a North Carolina town or city since the 31/2-year ban expired Dec. 1.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Hillsborough board member Matt Hughes, who is openly gay, said during Monday’s board meeting. In “so many places across the country, just not in the Southeast but really everywhere, people can marry the love of their life on a Saturday and get fired Monday when they show up at work.”

Two other towns in Orange County planned discussions on largely similar ordinances starting Tuesday in Carrboro and Wednesday in Chapel Hill, which is home of the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus. The city of Durham, with 275,000 people, will consider such protections next week, according to gay-rights groups.

“It’s a new day for LGBTQ North Carolinians, who for too long have lived under the legacy of discrimination in this state,” Equality North Carolina executive director Kendra Johnson said in a news release. Her group and others started a campaign in the fall to urge cities and towns to act.

Johnson cited the painful legacy of House Bill 2, which the Republican-dominated legislature approved and then-GOP Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law  in March 2016. The measure, which was a response to action by the Charlotte City Council, barred additional non-discrimination ordinances by towns and cities.

A key disputed section of HB2 required transgender people to use restrooms in many public buildings that corresponded to their sex at birth. It drew national condemnation and prompted several large corporations and sports teams to relocate events to other states or reconsider expanding in North Carolina.

In early 2017, the newly elected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and GOP legislative leaders approved a replacement law that prohibited local governments from enacting new nondiscrimination ordinances for workplaces, hotels and restaurants until December 2020.

State lawmakers still control rules involving public bathrooms. GOP lawmakers have shown little interest in approving statewide LGBT protections, which Cooper and other Democrats seek. Hughes said the lack of comprehensive anti-bias laws from the legislature or Congress makes it incumbent upon local governments to act.

Some social conservatives said broad LGBT non-discrimination ordinances will violate the constitutionally protected free speech and religious liberties of non-profit and business owners who hold sincerely held beliefs in opposition to gay marriage. Court cases elsewhere have involved bakers or florists cited for refusing to provide goods for a same-sex wedding.

While all citizens should be treated with dignity and respect, Hillsborough leaders are “attempting to punish people and businesses that don’t hold to their government view of sexuality,” said Tami Fitzgerald with the North Carolina Values Coalition. Fitzgerald urged the board Monday not to approve the ordinance.

One board member, Kathleen Ferguson, said she respects differences on these issues but that she’ll always side with policies that favor inclusivity. Mayor Pro Tempore Mark Bell, who said he has a transgender child, was more direct.

“The thought of my kid in the future losing employment or health care or being discriminated against, especially on the grounds of someone’s religion — it’s offensive,” Bell said.

Fitzgerald said her group would consider legal challenges and ask the General Assembly to intervene. Republicans lack veto-proof majorities and have limited options to cancel local ordinances. The offices of House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger did not immediately respond Tuesday to email requests for comment on the approved ordinance. The North Carolina General Assembly convenes its two-year session Wednesday.