Five years after House Bill 2 put North Carolina at the center of national controversy, cities in the state’s liberal enclaves are once again discussing discrimination and the LGBT community.

Six cities and counties in North Carolina have passed ordinances that designate sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, and LGBT advocates are now pushing two dozen more to follow suit.

But the new ordinances studiously avoid the flashpoint of 2016 — bathroom policy for transgender people. Both LGBT advocates and the General Assembly appear hesitant to wade back in to that debate.

The six new ordinances are nearly identical and largely symbolic. They prohibit businesses from denying services or employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as federally protected classes like race, religion, sex and disability. Several also include prohibitions against discrimination based on hairstyles “commonly associated with race or national origin.”

Under most of the new ordinances, violators can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined $500 per day. 

These moves renew a debate that began in 2016, when the city of Charlotte passed a sweeping nondiscrimination ordinance that protected gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. More controversially, Charlotte’s ordinance also allowed people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, a measure aimed at making transgender people more comfortable.

Opponents feared that people would abuse the ordinance to illicitly use women’s bathrooms and changing facilities. Legal experts also said Charlotte’s ordinance essentially outlawed separate men’s and women’s restrooms. 

In response, the General Assembly passed and then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2, a measure that undid Charlotte’s ordinance and required people to use the bathroom of their biological sex in public buildings.

The law touched off a national firestorm. The NBA moved its All-Star Game planned for Charlotte out of state, businesses canceled expansions and entertainers canceled performances as a form of protest.

Gov. Roy Cooper campaigned for office on repealing H.B. 2, and did so in March 2017.

The repeal bill included a provision that cities could not pass nondiscrimination ordinances, a provision with a sunset in December 2020.

Hillsborough became the first N.C. city to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance since the sunset, on Jan. 11. Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro, and Orange County quickly followed suit.

Mecklenburg County has passed a resolution professing support for the LGBT community but has not yet considered an ordinance.

LGBT advocacy group Equality N.C. is lobbying nearly two dozen cities, counties and towns — big and small — to pass their ordinance next:

  • Asheville
  • Black Mountain
  • Boone
  • Buncombe County
  • Cary
  • Charlotte
  • Davidson
  • Davidson County
  • Fayetteville
  • Gastonia
  • Greenville
  • Hendersonville
  • High Point
  • Huntersville
  • Matthews
  • Mecklenburg County
  • Raleigh
  • Rocky Mount
  • Statesville
  • Watauga County
  • Weaverville
  • Wilmington
  • Winston-Salem 

Organizations like the N.C. Family Policy Council and the N.C. Values Coalition have lined up against the new ordinances, saying they violate women’s privacy and could harm religious institutions and faith-based businesses. For example, churches or mosques would not be able to take sexual orientation or gender identity into account when hiring even if their religious doctrine spoke to the matter.

General Assembly leaders have been relatively quiet on the new ordinances but have indicated they will not act unless these potential problems become widespread. 

A spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, declined to comment. In an interview with Spectrum News, Berger said that any next steps would come from private legal actions if small business owners felt their religious liberty in jeopardy — not a new law.

“The courts are probably the appropriate forum for us to look at,” he said. 

Andrew Dunn is a freelance writer for Carolina Journal.