WILMINGTON –– Wilmington City Council is poised to vote on a nondiscrimination ordinance Tuesday night. Similar protections are sweeping through the state after a three-and-a-half-year ban on local nondiscrimination ordinances expired.
But local groups are accusing city staff of not going far enough to protect all residents in the proposed ordinance. One of those voices is the city’s own community relations advisory committee (CRAC), a group appointed by local officials to address discrimination and prejudices.
The ordinance, as proposed, would forbid some businesses from discriminating against customers and enact penalties, ranging from mere warnings to $1,000 fines, for those that breach the order. However, it does not address how those establishments treat employees or job candidates.
“The purpose of this ordinance is to ensure that, within the City limits, no person is denied full and equal enjoyment of places of public accommodation based on any discriminatory reason,” according to the council’s agenda item.
The policy does not apply to restrooms or changing facilities but specifically names hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues as examples of “public accommodations,” a term defined by federal law.
In response to the release of the draft, CRAC penned a letter to the city, arguing the proposed ordinance “falls far short” of offering equal rights to everyone.
The letter is signed by city-appointed members, chair Lori Wainwright and secretary Jen Johnson. Established in 2016, CRAC is tasked with recommending solutions to discrimination within the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County.
“There are a number of things that this ordinance does not do,” Wainwright said on a phone call Monday.
CRAC is asking for healthcare facilities to be included in the list of settings subject for fines if they discriminate against patients. Johnson said people are struggling to find LGBTQ-affirming health care providers locally.
“This is a health disparities issue,” Johnson said. “If people fear going to a private physician for health care because they fear being discriminated against, people are going to seek medical care less frequently.”
The letter requests the city expand proposed protections to include gender expression, natural hairstyles, marital or familial status, veterans and those who dress culturally specific. Currently, the ordinance mentions only race, color, religion, national origin and sex, including sexual orientation, gender identity and pregnancy.
CRAC’s letter officially requests the city to withdraw the proposal until a new ordinance is drafted with protections for employees within private businesses. Similarly, the LGBTQ Center of the Cape Fear Coast (formerly the Frank Harr Foundation) is asking the city to table the draft, allowing time to garner more feedback from stakeholders.
The LGBTQ Center is also in favor or steeper penalties. In the current proposal, the consequence for violating the ordinance the first time is a warning. Penalties rise as events repeat, up to $1,000 after the fourth incident. After a fifth event, the city could serve the business an injunction, per the draft.
“If someone commits a homophobic attack against me and is cited under this ordinance, they get a warning, which I find unacceptable,” said Caroline Morin-Gage, executive director at the center.
Wainwright said the committee was unaware the city was drafting an ordinance but has urged its staff to do so. CRAC discovered Thursday the council was voting on one this week. After reading it, it called an emergency meeting Sunday night.
City attorney John Joye was among those in attendance. Attendees said he shared the legal explanation behind the ordinance not addressing discriminatory employers. While he reportedly told attendees the city could not enact protections for private businesses’ employees, other cities have done just that.
(Port City Daily reached out to the city for comment but did not hear back by deadline.)
“The city has a legitimate point of view on this,” Wainwright said. “I think it’s all subject to your legal analysis. Other communities have decided that they will risk being sued in order to have a comprehensive [ordinance].”
Despite Joye’s presence, CRAC unanimously voted Sunday to recommend the city press pause on the proposal.
“It needed to be more comprehensive, like the ones that are being passed by a number of cities and communities across North Carolina,” Wainwright said.
Monday morning, city council joined in an agenda briefing to review the resolutions and ordinances slated for votes Tuesday night. The briefing is typically an opportunity for the council to address concerns ahead of the meeting. There was no discussion on the topic, and no official spoke in support of or against the proposal.
At least 10 other jurisdictions in North Carolina have adopted anti-discrimination ordinances this year, including Apex, Asheville, Buncombe County, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro, Hillsborough and Orange County, according to a list compiled by Equality North Carolina.
Last Monday, Charlotte City Council unanimously approved a new nondiscrimination ordinance. The vote came five years after it adopted the original ordinance that drove the state legislature to pass House Bill 2. In 2016, the council included a provision for transgender people to use the public restroom of the gender they identify with. Before it went into effect, state lawmakers retaliated with the “bathroom bill.”
The legislation infamously led to boycotts against North Carolina. Large corporations relocated. Sports teams and entertainers called off events. Locally, Wilmington felt the ramifications largely in its film industry as calls dried up within the film office.
Though House Bill 2 was repealed in 2017, following Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s election, a moratorium on local nondiscrimination ordinances remained. Those remnants expired in December.
Also on Tuesday, the City of Wilmington is considering a resolution “affirming” the city’s anti-discrimination policy for awarding contracts. It would bar the city manager and city attorney from signing any contract or associating with any employers who unlawfully discriminated, unless they took “appropriate steps to remedy said discrimination.”
The city currently has an anti-discrimination policy for its own employees and a “business purchasing program” policy, which encourages the city to contract with local, small, women- and minority-owned businesses.
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