WILMINGTON — For one year, beginning March 23, 2016, a single issue dominated political headlines in North Carolina: the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, better known as House Bill 2, HB2 or “the bathroom bill.”
Although the law was partially revoked on March 30, 2017, certain provisions remained in place, including the ban on local governments passing their own non-discrimination ordinances.
Perhaps lost in the Covid-19-all-the-time news cycle, the provisions expired in December. In the wake of the ban’s expiration, Equality North Carolina and the Campaign for Southern Equality launched “NC is Ready,” a campaign to urge counties, cities and towns in North Carolina to pass non-discrimination ordinances that offer protections not provided for in state and federal laws.
Although HB2 focused on the issue of bathroom access for people who identified with a gender different than the one on their birth certificates, the “NC is Ready” campaign is promoting broader non-discrimination ordinances, which also would protect classes of people such as veterans.
First, some background
In February 2016, the Charlotte City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in public accommodations. Before the ordinance took effect, a special session of the N.C. General Assembly was called to respond. On March 23, the legislature passed House Bill 2 and Gov. Pat McCrory signed it into law that night.
The bill stated that state law pre-empted any local anti-discrimination ordinances and, according to a New York Times article at the time, “required schools and other public facilities with single-gender washrooms to only allow people of the corresponding sex as listed on their birth certificate to use them.”
After a nationwide public outcry and boycotts (as well as threats of boycotts) by large corporations and groups such as sports organizations and the film industry, the law was partially overturned in March of 2017.
House Bill 142, however, kept the ban on local anti-discrimination ordinances in place until December 1, 2020.
Since the ban expired, several North Carolina municipalities have either passed or are pursuing anti-discrimination ordinances. Allison Scott, director of policy and programs with the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, said recently the political climate in the state has changed since 2016. Even though Republicans retain control of both houses of the general assembly, Scott said there has been no indication that they want to re-fight HB2.
Scott cited recent newspaper reports in which N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger and other HB2 supporters said they had no intentions of taking up similar bills again. But some local leaders across the state have expressed concerns that private lawsuits will be filed to block ordinances, dragging pandemic-strained local governments into a drawn out and costly legal fight.
Groups such as the North Carolina Values Coalition already have suggested they would challenge local non-discrimination ordinances in court, arguing that they violate the state’s constitution.
Local leaders respond
Locally, discussions about non-discrimination ordinances remain mostly out of the public realm for now.
After the ordinance ban expired in December, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo told USA TODAY Network reporters that, while he prefers a statewide anti-discrimination law instead of a patchwork solution, he didn’t rule out Wilmington and other communities trying to do something on their own.
In a Thursday email to Port City Daily, a city spokesperson wrote:
“City staff is currently researching and performing a comprehensive review of issues surrounding nondiscrimination, which reflects City Council’s commitment to equity and inclusion. This effort includes ongoing conversations with community partners, including the joint County/City Community Relations Advisory Committee, with the goal of improving access to city government and services for residents and visitors from every ability and walk of life.”
A spokesperson for New Hanover County also responded Thursday:
“The Board of Commissioners recently received a letter from the County/City Community Relations Advisory Committee about developing nondiscrimination ordinances that include sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression following the sunset of HB142. The county’s Office of Diversity and Equity also recently completed an assessment that includes a recommendation for the county, in coordination with community partners, to increase initiatives to promote inclusion for the LGBTQ community. The county is committed to reduce discrimination and the Office of Diversity and Equity will be coordinating with the Community Relations Advisory Committee, community partners, elected officials, and other advocates to move policies and programs forward to help ensure this goal is met.”
Port City Daily reached out to New Hanover County Commissioners Chair Julia Olsen-Boseman — who in 2005 became the first openly gay member of the N.C. General Assembly — for comments on possible non-discriminations initiatives, but received no response.
Asked in late January about possible Wilmington-area ordinances, Rep. Deb Butler told Port City Daily:
“HB2 was nothing more than a tool to gaslight the GOP base, to inflame them and drive them out to vote against a make-believe issue. I support statewide nondiscrimination legislation, but I applaud municipalities who refuse to wait on Raleigh to get the job done because sadly with the leadership we have, it will be a long wait.”
Scott Nunn is a Wilmington native and award-winning journalist with over 30 years experience. Send tips and comments to email@example.com.
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