Four new North Carolina communities now have LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, protecting citizens from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The cities of Asheville, Durham, and Greensboro, as well as Buncombe County, passed anti-discrimination ordinances earlier this year, but they officially took effect on Thursday, making these communities the latest in a wave of local governments passing similar protections.
“It’s a huge step towards cultural change, and it’s a huge step to giving people a mechanism to push back against discrimination,” Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC said.
After repealing HB 2 — North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill” — legislators passed HB 142, which put a three-year moratorium on any local governments passing nondiscrimination ordinances. Since that moratorium lifted last year, nine local jurisdictions have passed LGBTQ-inclusive protections, a list that includes the four new communities plus Apex, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and Orange County.
These ordinances protect LGBTQ residents from discrimination in public accommodations and private employment. Some, such as Buncombe County’s ordinance, go even further to protect residents from housing discrimination.
“We have still been living under the long shadow of HB 2 and HB 142, which very much set a tone that was chilling, particularly for transgender folks,” Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Buncombe County commissioner said. “With the passage of an ordinance like this, it’s an opportunity for us at Buncombe County to say clearly that this is a community where we want to treat everyone with equality and dignity.”
Along with protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, these new ordinances also protect residents from discrimination based on their natural hair — prohibiting dress codes that disallow cultural hair styles such as braids or Afros.
Most of these ordinances include a reporting process for residents to notify officials of discrimination. The report triggers an investigation which can result in a fine of to the offender of between $100 and $500.
Beach-Ferrara emphasized that this process was not meant to penalize, but to educate.
“It was very important to us that the ordinance be enforced through civil measures versus criminal,” she said. “The goal is not to create an occasion for more criminal offenses; the orientation of the ordinance is very much around education and mitigation efforts and trying to achieve resolution that way.”
These ordinances are unable to legislate the right of transgender individuals to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity — a key component of the HB 2 controversy. When legislators passed HB 142 in 2017, they stipulated that local governments did not have the authority to make rules regarding multiple-occupancy restrooms. This left transgender North Carolinians in limbo — with no real direction on what facilities they were allowed to use.
Since then, the bill has been contested in court, with a 2019 settlement prohibiting the use of HB 142 to to “bar, prohibit, block, deter, or impede any transgender individuals from using public facilities under any Executive Branch Defendant’s control or supervision, in accordance with the transgender individual’s gender identity.”
“There is nothing that explicitly prohibits trans folks from accessing the restrooms that match their gender identity,” Johnson said. “But there is also nothing that explicitly grants the authority for folks to use that restroom — so people may still be profiled.”
Three anti-trans bills were introduced in the General Assembly this past year, one of which sought to prevent transgender women from participating in women’s sports and another which aimed to ban gender-affirming healthcare for transgender individuals under 21. None of these bills made it to the Governor’s desk, but Johnson said they are a reminder of the work that remains to be done.
“We need to have comprehensive protections on the state level and the federal level,” she said. “And we need to really create pathways for broader security for the folks who are the most marginalized in the LGBTQ+ acronym, which is transgender and gender non-conforming folks.”
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court left in place the decision of a lower court allowing a transgender student to use the bathroom that corresponded with his gender identity. The court’s decision not to hear the case means that transgender students in several mid-Atlantic states now have the right to use the bathroom that matches their gender. The federal court involved in this case does not have jurisdiction over North Carolina, but LGBTQ advocates see it as a positive sign for the community.
Johnson referenced a study from the Public Religion Research Institute which found that 67 percent of North Carolinians support laws that would explicitly protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination.
“That should be enough of a clear signal that we should not be relegating people to second-class citizenship,” she said.
The Republican-controlled legislature has yet to mount any challenges against these non-discrimination ordinances. In an interview in January, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger indicated that the legislature would likely not address the issue, but that opponents of the ordinances could possibly mount legal challenges against them.
“I think it is something that there will be some conversations about, but my thought is that the more likely next step for folks that have concerns about what may be taking place would be those people who might be directly impacted in a way, maybe on their religious liberties, their businesses, or something,” He said in an interview on Twitter. “I think the courts probably will be the appropriate forum for us to look at it.”
This story originally appeared on NC Policy Watch, ncpolicywatch.com.
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