The city of Charlotte unanimously passed a nondiscrimination ordinance Monday, Aug. 9, the first in the city since the 2016 measure that led to House Bill 2.

The two Republicans on the City Council joined with nine Democrats in supporting the ordinance, after saying new additions from the city attorney strengthened exemptions for religious organizations.

Under the new ordinance, businesses in Charlotte are not permitted to deny service based on a person’s gender identity, gender expression, or other LGBTQ characteristics. Protections also extend to people who wear a “natural hairstyle,” as well as veterans and pregnant women.

Employers are also prohibited from firing or refusing to hire someone based on those protected classes.

“It’s been a long and tumultuous road to get to where we are tonight, but I know it’s nothing compared to the long, bumpy and often frightening road that our LGBTQ friends, neighbors, relatives, and coworkers have had to travel for much of their lives,” Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said shortly before the vote. 

“Charlotte is a welcoming city that values all people for who they are and what they have to contribute. Tonight, we finally have an opportunity to go beyond those words and make it law, so that all residents and visitors are able to live their lives safely in Charlotte with the love, dignity, and respect that all of us should have the right to enjoy.”

While other urban cities have passed nondiscrimination ordinances in the past few months, Charlotte’s was widely watched due to the city’s controversial history with the issue.

In 2016, the city passed a nondiscrimination ordinance including a requirement that businesses open bathrooms to people based on their perceived gender. In response, the General Assembly passed H.B. 2, which invalidated local nondiscrimination ordinances and required people to use the bathroom of their sex in public buildings.

That law set off a firestorm of national attention, including canceled business expansions and concerts and the departure of the NBA All-Star Game from Charlotte.

Gov. Roy Cooper campaigned that year on repealing the bill and did so in a compromise that included an injunction against cities passing nondiscrimination ordinances until December 2020.

Cities are still prohibited from regulating access to bathrooms, locker rooms, and shower facilities under the repeal bill. Charlotte’s new ordinance doesn’t address bathrooms.

Unlike in 2016, the new Charlotte ordinance came after lengthy discussions with religious leaders and members of the General Assembly, said Republican councilman Tariq Bokhari.

“We didn’t ask everyone to support it or endorse it, we just asked them to be part of the conversation so that we use this shield in its proper way,” Bokhari said. “We wanted there to be no surprises.”

The vote Monday came after a sometimes heated public comment period, in which several people expressed concerns that small business owners may be compelled to violate their religious convictions.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of N.C. Values Coalition, cited the case of a florist in Washington state and baker in Colorado targeted by their local governments for refusing to create arrangements or cakes for same-sex weddings.

It’s unclear how small businesses with Christian owners will fare under Charlotte’s new ordinance. But the ordinance does exempt faith-based organizations from its provisions, with the latest version of the ordinance passed Monday including a broader definition of what constitutes such a group. The ordinance also includes a line that it does not “deny any entity or individual their constitutional or statutory protections against compelled speech or expression.”

Republican councilman Ed Driggs said opponents of the ordinance have a reasonable fear of unintended consequences. That includes implications for Christian business owners, as well as LGBT people who may run into obstacles being hired because employers may fear bringing on someone who would become an “untouchable employee.”

However, on balance, he said he supported the ordinance because of his experiences early in his career with gay coworkers who lived with fear and anxiety.

“This ordinance is something we can do to discourage man’s inhumanity to man, so I intend to support it,” Driggs said. “I do think, however, that we have a responsibility to acknowledge some legitimate concerns of those who oppose it, and not brush all of these people aside as uncomprehending bigots.”

Both Republicans, Bokhari and Driggs, supported an amendment to the ordinance that would add political affiliation as a protected class. Last week, WBTV reported that a former employee of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority sued the organization claiming he was fired for wearing a T-shirt supporting Donald Trump on his day off. None of the nine Democrats on the council voted in favor.

“For me, tonight, the distinction is between identity versus expression,” councilwoman Victoria Watlington said. “You can be a Republican today, and then you can be an independent, and the day after that you can be a Democrat. I think that’s a very different discussion than what we’re talking about tonight.”

Other objections came from people who questioned whether the ordinance was addressing a real problem. Few, if any, examples have been cited of discrimination against the LGBT community in Charlotte by businesses or employers.

Bokhari said that wasn’t necessarily an important consideration.

“If one person is denied their individual liberty, their freedom, in this country, it is one person too many,” Bokhari said.