CHARLOTTE, N.C. — City Council will move forward with further considerations on LGBT-inclusive protections in public accommodations and other city ordinances after hearing a proposal at their dinner meeting on Monday evening.
Scott Bishop, chair of the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC), led the presentation on behalf of the ad-hoc Charlotte Non-Discrimination Ordinance Coalition.
“We feel it is time Charlotte keeps up with its peers around the country,” Bishop told Council. “We feel all residents should be treated fairly and equally. We feel arbitrary discrimination is detrimental to the peace process and welfare of the city. Updating these ordinances will help strengthen this community with an atmosphere of respect and inclusivity.”
The coalition is comprised of several groups including Equality North Carolina, the Charlotte Business Guild, Genderlines, LGBT Democrats of Mecklenburg County, the ACLU-Charlotte and the Human Rights Campaign.
The coalition wants to add several new protected classes — sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and marital or family status — to four of the city’s ordinances: Public Accommodations, Commercial Non-Discrimination, Charlotte Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee and Passenger Vehicles for Hire.
Councilmembers Patsy Kinsey (D-Dist. 1) and LaWana Mayfield (D-Dist. 3) requested the proposed changes be further studied by city staff and presented back to Council as “expeditiously” as possible. That motion passed unanimously, though Democrat David Howard (D-At Large) and Republican Kenny Smith (Dist. 6) had questions on several ways the ordinance changes might play out in public. Advocates were hopeful the changes might have come up for consideration as soon as Dec. 8. City staff thinks it might take longer to gather research on the changes.
The city currently prohibits discrimination against its own employees on the basis of sexual orientation and, as noted in employment policies, on the basis of “actual or perceived gender as expressed through dress, appearance or behavior.” Those protections do not extend to employees in the private sector, and the proposal presented Monday night would not attempt to alter laws on private employment. The city also offers benefits to same-gender domestic partners and spouses.
If approved, the updates to the four ordinances under consideration would discourage anti-LGBT discrimination in passenger vehicles, by businesses offering “goods, services, facilities … [or] accommodations” to members of the public. Updates to the Commercial Non-Discrimination Ordinance would require businesses contracting with the city to have the same non-discrimination policies as the city. Businesses would not be able to discriminate against other businesses, contractors and sub-contractors with which they do business. All of the ordinances already include several other enumerated classes, such as race and religion.
According to advocates, Charlotte is just one of three of the largest 20 cities in the U.S. lacking at least LGBT-inclusive public accommodations protections; the others are Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla.
Councilmember Smith said Monday’s proposal was the first he had heard of possible changes, though advocates said they had been meeting with several Council members and had distributed information on the proposal to all members of Council. Smith questioned the possible impact of the changes, particularly the public accommodations change, on private businesses. He cited, as an example, a caterer who might refuse to work for a particular client.
City Attorney Bob Hagemann said ordinances like the Commercial Non-Discrimination Ordinance might result in a contractor’s temporary disbarment from city contracting if they were to have been found to discriminate against another company in the process of doing business for the city.
Businesses that might discriminate against customers could be subject to several small fines, levied through the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee. The city does not have the power to shutter businesses.
“The ordinance doesn’t have real teeth,” said Willie Ratchford, executive director of the Community Relations Committee. “That is something you might want to consider, is whether you put teeth in whatever you decide to approve.”
Howard also questioned the potential for other complications, citing a well-known and debunked scare tactic — regarding transgender persons’ use of public restrooms — often used by right-wing groups in opposing LGBT-inclusive public accommodations protections. Howard suggested the city consider other options to address the issue, including potential building code revisions.
“I’d like to make sure we look at all the options we can to approach that with the best practices used everywhere,” Howard said.
Some institutions, particularly colleges and universities, have relied on single-stall, gender-neutral restrooms for transgender persons’ use. Mayor Dan Clodfelter told Council that most building codes are controlled by state law, not city or county regulation.
Republican Ed Driggs (Dist. 7) also had some questions, but hoped a more thorough city staff presentation might answer many of them.
“It is not my intention to erect barriers here,” Driggs said.
Councilmember Greg Phipps (D-Dist. 4) asked staff to compile documented cases of discrimination in the city, but current ordinances do not allow the Community Relations Committee to track anti-LGBT discrimination and no such numbers are compiled by city staff. Advocates say they will present stories of discrimination faced by local community members.
Ratchford said the Community Relations Committee has known about the efforts so far.
“The Community Relations Committee has been working with Scott Bishop and MeckPAC several months now on this issue,” he said. “It is my sense that a vast majority of the Community Relations Committee are supportive of City Council approving this language to ordinances, policies and procedures.”
Updates to the ordinances have been a long time in the making. The possibility of forthcoming changes, particularly to the Commercial Non-Discrimination Ordinance, were originally reported by qnotes in June 2013, when the newspaper also reported that at least $1.1 million in Democratic National Convention-related city contracting funds had gone to companies without LGBT-inclusive protections. At the time, a statewide anti-LGBT advocacy group began contacting city leaders to voice their opposition to potential changes.
The most recent effort to address the ordinance changes began again this year in July.
The last time City Council considered similar protections was in November 1992. It voted down the proposal and hasn’t had a direct, public vote on an LGBT-inclusive measure since.
If eventually passed by Council, Charlotte would become the first city in North Carolina to extend public LGBT-inclusive protections to citizens and residents. Several cities in South Carolina, including state capital Columbia, Charleston, Folly Beach and Myrtle Beach, along with Richland County, offer similar protections.
The state of North Carolina does not currently protect LGBT people from discrimination in employment, public accommodations or other areas.