North Carolina immersed in battle over ‘bathroom bill’

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory announced two weeks ago that high-tech giant PayPal would bring 400 jobs to this bustling financial hub known affectionately as the Queen City. He boasted that North Carolina was “the ideal destination” for the digital payments processor based in Silicon Valley.

PayPal, a week later, though, no longer shared the governor’s enthusiasm.

McCrory, in the interim, signed what gay rights supporters consider a discriminatory legislative attack against the rights of gays, lesbians and transgender people. It is also the first law in the nation that says which bathroom transgender men and women may use. Supporters say the law is necessary to protect girls from predatory transgender females in bathrooms, locker rooms and showers, although no incidents have been recorded.

The Tar Heel State’s reputation for moderation and accommodation has been bruised as the battle over LGBT rights roils the state’s business, political, legal and social worlds with no end in sight.

A cascade of national criticism and threats of economic boycotts ensued once McCrory’s signature had dried. Anti-discrimination voices were heard from the White House to editorial pages across the country to North Carolina’s heavy-hitting business community, which deplores any political activity that makes it hard to hire talented workers.

The law’s backers vow to hold their ground against what they perceive as a liberal agenda, and they want to counter what they see as an overreach by local governments.

Major corporations, including Apple, Google and the National Basketball Association, which plans an all-star game here next year, threatened to quit North Carolina. Conventions were canceled. Even this month’s world-renowned furniture mart in High Point is in jeopardy as marketgoers pull out.

PayPal slammed the law and tweeted it was “proud to champion LGBTQ equality in N. Carolina and around the world.”

Georgia, meanwhile, stands to benefit from the public-relations maelstrom engulfing neighboring North Carolina. Monday, the day a federal lawsuit was filed in Charlotte challenging McCrory’s decision, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a so-called “religious liberty” bill widely viewed as discriminatory to gays and lesbians.

A day later Atlanta City Council members introduced a resolution calling on the NBA to move the 2017 All-Star Game to Atlanta. Salesmen for the city’s convention bureau expect calls from displeased event planners crossing North Carolina off their list. And Georgia’s economic developers, who compete cheek-to-jowl with North Carolina over corporate and industrial prospects, are privately optimistic at the recruitment possibilities.

Deep South Georgia, for once, comes across as more progressive than North Carolina with its history of moderate leadership that helped turn Charlotte into a banking juggernaut, the Research Triangle into a scientific hub and Asheville into a New Age tourist mecca.

“During my career at the bank, and throughout my business life in Charlotte, we have been an open city that prides itself on treatment of other people, and for us to be told we can’t do that is remarkable,” Hugh McColl, the man who built NationsBank and, consequently, Charlotte, said in an interview. “I am not happy about it.”

With an upcoming gubernatorial election, and ongoing legal and economic battles, North Carolina’s LGBT fight could fester for a long time, as could the state’s reputation.

“Some have called our state an embarrassment,” McCrory, in a YouTube video released Tuesday, said in response to growing condemnation. “The real embarrassment is politicians not publicly respecting each other’s positions on complex issues. … North Carolina has been the target of a vicious, nationwide smear campaign.”

A hurried special session

Scott Bishop started this whole mess two summers ago by lobbying Charlotte City Council members to bolster the city’s anti-discrimination laws. Bishop, a leading equal rights advocate, pushed the council a year later to also allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice. The ordinance failed due to the bathroom provision.

Equality, though, became a big issue in last fall’s elections. Two liberal council members, along with Mayor Jennifer Roberts who strongly supported the bill, were elected.

In February, the council voted 7-4 to outlaw discrimination, based on sexual preference, in bars, restaurants, stores and taxis. It also allowed freedom of bathroom choice. The ordinance was set to go into effect April 1.

“There is always a need to stand up for equality, inclusion and justice, and there was a need, in the LGBT community, to stand up for nondiscrimination,” Roberts said in an interview at City Hall with the skyline glistening in the background.

Two Charlotte Republicans had earlier proposed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, somewhat similar to the bill Deal shot down in Georgia. It died last April, though, after McCrory, other Republicans and many businesses voiced reservations.

But this year — an election year — conservatives would not be denied. House leaders hurriedly called a special legislative session for March 23. In the House, every Republican and 11 Democrats voted for the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, which prohibits cities and counties from adopting their own anti-discrimination ordinances.

In the Senate, Democrats walked out, allowing the chamber’s 32 Republicans to handily pass their anti-discrimination bill, which doesn’t apply to transgender people. (Legislators, for good measure, also tacked on language prohibiting municipalities from raising the minimum wage.)

McCrory, who’d earlier said Charlotte’s bathroom provision would lead to “deviant actions,” signed the bill that evening.

“The basic expectation of privacy in the most personal of settings, a restroom or locker room, for each gender was violated by government overreach and intrusion by the mayor and City Council of Charlotte,” McCrory — a former Charlotte mayor — said in a statement. He declined an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview request. “This new government regulation defies common sense and basic community norms by allowing, for example, a man to use a woman’s bathroom, shower or locker room.”

Bishop, the activist, says violence too often greets transgender people when using bathrooms that align with their birth certificates. Nowhere, he adds, has it been documented that transgender females attack girls in bathrooms or locker rooms as McCrory and others warn.

Still, the transgender provision in Charlotte’s ordinance even made some liberals uncomfortable.

“I don’t think the bathroom issue was an overreach at all,” said Bishop, an information security consultant for Bank of America. “Transgender people use the bathroom just like everybody else. It’s better that they use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity. If you look like a man, shouldn’t you be in the men’s room?”

‘The beginning of a tidal wave’

The intersection of Trade and Tryon streets is the teeming commercial core of Charlotte, the crossroads of Carolina capitalism. Downtown, or Uptown as boosters prefer, is undergoing a dizzying spate of construction as acres of surface parking lots give way to one tall, shiny building after another.

The city, like North Carolina on the whole, is on a roll. New basketball and baseball stadiums add to the city’s recreational allure. Museums, parks and high-rise condos bring people downtown. North Carolina perennially ranks among the nation’s five top business locales, as does Georgia.

McCrory and the General Assembly, according to a number of North Carolina business leaders, politicians and residents interviewed last week, jeopardized the state’s economic future.

“Parts of the country that are the most open and welcoming to all people have the best economic growth, so, yes, it has long-term negative implications for economic growth,” said the retired McColl, whose bank looms over Trade and Tryon. “Clearly, the governor should have vetoed the bill, (especially) given that Charlotte has been the huge engine of North Carolina’s economic success.”

Reaction to McCrory’s signing of House Bill 2 was swift and unequivocal. The White House labeled the bill “mean-spirited.” The New York Times editorialized that McCrory “made the state a pioneer in bigotry.” The local paper, The Charlotte Observer, conjured “the South’s dark, bigoted past.”

Dozens of CEOs, including the heads of Apple, Facebook, IBM and Yahoo, demanded the law’s repeal. The NBA said “this discriminatory law runs counter to our guiding principles of equality and mutual respect.” ESPN, considering Charlotte Motor Speedway for the X Games, said it would “evaluate all of our options.” And the U.S. Soccer Federation threatened to pull future men’s and women’s matches from North Carolina.

Hollywood chimed in, too. Director Rob Reiner said he won’t film in North Carolina until the legislation is repealed. Producers Harvey and Robert Weinstein, who threatened to pull a Richard Pryor biopic from Georgia if Deal didn’t veto the religious freedom bill, offered similar warnings to North Carolina. Lionsgate and Hulu moved an upcoming TV shoot to Canada.

The High Point furniture market gets underway April 16, but “hundreds and perhaps thousands” of customers, according to organizers, may boycott the event, which generates billions of dollars in revenue. The Southern Sociological Society, which typically draws 1,200 people over four days, canceled its 2019 convention in Charlotte and all future North Carolina gatherings.

And, adding insult to injury, New York’s governor Tuesday joined the mayors of New York City, San Francisco and Seattle in banning non-essential employees from traveling to North Carolina on business. That night 1,000 protesters blocked downtown Chapel Hill in opposition to HB 2.

“It’s the beginning of a tidal wave,” said Roberts, Charlotte’s mayor. “Once it becomes clear that the law legalizes discrimination against the LGBT community, the opposition against the bill will continue to build. It’s in the court of public opinion.”

Supporters of the bill don’t expect the HB 2 backlash to linger.

“Folks like the ACLU and Equality NC are using North Carolina as a national pawn to further their agenda across the entire country,” Kami Mueller, a spokeswoman for the Coalition, said Thursday. But “Governor McCrory has made it clear he won’t backpedal and, as he continues to show leadership and strength on HB 2, they’ll realize it’s a lost cause.”

Mueller’s group released a letter last week claiming more than 300 North Carolina business owners support HB 2, although only 41 people signed the note.

Campaign clash seems certain

The lawsuit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union and others seeks to declare unconstitutional HB 2. Roy Cooper, the state’s attorney general and a Democrat, said he wouldn’t defend the law, setting up a rare constitutional clash within McCrory’s administration.

Cooper is expected to face McCrory in the November election, guaranteeing that the “bathroom bill” will be front and center on the campaign trail. And if Houston’s referendum last year on gay rights and bathroom choice is any indication, North Carolina is in for a wild ride.

A disturbing black-and-white TV ad that ran in the Texas city, accompanied by menacing music, showed a man confronting a little girl in a women’s restroom. The anti-discrimination ordinance failed.

Another “religious freedom” push in the General Assembly would also stoke the political fires and make unlikely repeal of HB 2. Critics say North Carolina will suffer the same economic damage and bad press that befell Indiana last year after its governor signed legislation deemed discriminatory to gays, lesbians and transgender men and women. A dozen conventions and $60 million in economic impact were lost due to the ensuing furor.

Georgia dodged the economic bullet that hit Indiana. It also avoids, for now at least, the anger and bitterness sweeping North Carolina.

“Georgia is saying that many people have values different than yours, but they’re not so blinded to opening the door to whoever comes along,” said Sam Bass, an electrical engineer eating lunch at Trade and Tryon. “The governor really did a good job striking down the anti-discrimination law. Georgia is a more welcoming state.”

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