Divided We Stand

Published 11:14 am Monday, March 28, 2016

RALEIGH – Legislation approved here late Wednesday night during a special called session of the North Carolina General Assembly has left the Tar Heel State divided.

After an all-day session on Wednesday in both wings of the General Assembly, the NC House of Representatives and State Senate each gave their majority approval to House Bill 2: the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. By nightfall, Gov. Pat McCrory placed his signature on the new measure, which for the most part basically states that a bathroom or changing facility, areas that include a locker room or shower room, in a public place, especially public schools where multiple students are in place and may be in various stages of undress, are to be occupied only by those of the same biological sex (as stated on a person’s birth certificate).

The new legislation came in response to a broad measure adopted earlier this month by the Charlotte City Council to protect the rights of the Lesbian, Gay and Transgender (LBGT) community. Part of Charlotte’s new ordinance, which was to take affect on April 1, would permit transgender males, who identify themselves as females, to use a women’s bathroom in a public setting.

After weeks of maneuvering, the leaders of both the NC House and Senate had the membership of both government bodies to convene in this week’s special session where the Charlotte ordinance was addressed.

The state’s proposed legislation was opposed by all Democratic senators in attendance. Those 11 senators, to include Erica Smith-Ingram of District 3 (which includes Bertie, Hertford and Northampton as well as five other northeastern NC counties) walked out of the session in protest prior to the vote being taken.

Smith-Ingram said the reason behind the exodus of Democrats from the Senate chambers was because they were not given ample time to study the bill.

“There were several layers to this proposed legislation, to include one that prevented local government branches from approving local ordinances dealing with wages and hourly salaries,” Smith-Ingram told the R-C News-Herald on Thursday.

“We were given very little time to study this as well as the other factors of House Bill 2,” she continued. “I, for one, wanted the extra time to study the language of this legislation to be sure of what its impact would be on the county governments within my District, to include any possible impact it may present in regard to economic development.”

Smith-Ingram said what she did learn from quickly reading the proposed bill was “GOP overreach into the powers of local government; it wasn’t just about the Charlotte ordinance.”

She added that the bill arrived in the Senate shortly past 10 a.m. on Wednesday followed by a round of committee meetings that lasted well over one hour.

“In committee, we (Democrats) expressed our concern with the language of the House bill and offered amendments, but each of those amendments were shot down,” Smith-Ingram stated.

Shortly before 6 p.m. on Wednesday, as Senate Democratic Minority Leader Dan Blue II was voicing opposition to House Bill 2, Smith-Ingram said she and the 10 other Democratic senators exited the Senate chamber one-by-one in protest.

“The constituents of my Senate district sent me to Raleigh to make intelligent decisions and represent their concerns,” she said. “I must weigh all options and ascertain how they affect us (District 3). I would be derelict in my duties, on behalf of my constituents, to cast a vote when I have no idea how it affects us in rural northeast North Carolina and the possible economic impact this legislation would have. I stress the latter because I am in Raleigh to also be a voice of the county commissioners in my District and aid them in economic development. Why would I blindly vote on a bill that may have a negative impact on that.”

Smith-Ingram said she has previously experienced reservations on other legislation. However, in all those other situations she was given ample time to study the pros and cons that assisted her in forming a decision on how to vote on those issues.

“It happened with our most recent state budget,” she recalled. “I had reservations early on about the way I would vote, but I had a great deal of time to study our budget line-by-line and wound-up supporting it with a yes vote. It was much different this week as it all came down to a single day where we had to deliberate, less than eight hours after we were handed the particulars of this proposed legislation; that wasn’t enough time for me personally to weigh all the options and reach a decision.”

Earlier on Wednesday in the NC House of Representatives, District 5 member Howard Hunter III of Ahoskie said he went in with an open mind about the proposed legislation.

“I was under the impression that we had been called back to Raleigh to address the portion of the Charlotte ordinance that called for allowing transgender males to use women’s restrooms,” Hunter told the R-C News-Herald. “I had my mind locked in on living up to my morals and values that men have no place in a women’s restroom, no matter if that man alleges he identifies himself as a woman psychologically. I truly believe that my constituents in the 5th District feel the same way and that’s to make sure we protect our women and children within the privacy of a public restroom.”

Hunter was among 11 other Democrats, to include Rep. Michael Wray of Gaston, in the NC House who “crossed over” and joined Republicans in overwhelmingly supporting House Bill 2.

However, that bill did contain some language that Hunter said, “raised a red flag in my mind.”

“The Republicans made this much more than just about transgender individuals in a public restroom,” Hunter said. “We had less than 30 minutes to study the bill; we didn’t receive this information in advance,” he said. “I was very concerned about some of the other language included in this bill, parts that I believe take away the rights of local government to govern. There was also some language about the Wage and Hour Act that I didn’t have time to completely wrap my head around, but again, they (Republicans) didn’t give us a lot of time to study it.”

Hunter said he and other Democrats wanted to vote separately on each portion of the bill.

“But when it reached the full floor of the House, the (Republican) Rules Committee chairman wouldn’t let that happen,” he stressed.

Hunter noted that in hindsight he might have changed positions on this issue, despite receiving positive comments from his local constituents in praise of his efforts to protect women and children in public restrooms.

“If I had known then what I know now about the broader scope of this bill, I may have voted differently,” Hunter remarked. “I need to stress that my vote does not reflect any negative feelings towards the LCBT community; I do not discriminate against anyone. I was all about protecting women and children from possible predators in a public bathroom. I can live with that; I can rest at night with the way I voted regarding that portion of the bill.”

Hunter admitted he is not very familiar with the transgender community.

“I understand the gay and lesbian community because I have friends, and some colleagues, who are active members of that lifestyle and I accept them for who they are,” Hunter noted. “It’s the transgender community that I don’t know that much about. The transgender community is not out in the open here in the rural areas of our state as it is in the metro areas. Perhaps I need to do a better job of educating myself about transgender individuals.”

He added that of the 12 Democrats that crossed party lines to vote yes for House Bill 2, all but one represent rural areas.

“Maybe they’re like me in not completely understanding the lifestyle of the transgender community and the problems they face in everyday life,” Hunter concluded.

In the broader scope of the legislation, opponents argue that by prohibiting local government entities from establishing singular anti-discrimination policies and, thusly, shifting that language to fit the state’s current regulations, it strips away any protection of the LGBT community because the current state policy does not address discrimination against those individuals.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam said his office has received over 4,200 emails encouraging him to pass legislation addressing the Charlotte ordinance.

In a statement to the media, Stam said House Bill 2 contains five provisions:

(1) Require single sex multiple occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities in public schools and public agencies. The Charlotte ordinance tried to set restroom policy throughout the city even in private businesses. The new law sets common sense policy for government facilities but leaves private business free (subject to laws of indecent exposure).

(2) Supersedes and preempts local ordinances, regulations, or resolutions imposing any requirements on employers pertaining to compensation of employees, with certain exceptions.

(3) Prohibits cities and counties from requiring private contractors to abide by regulations or controls on employment practices or mandate or prohibit provision of goods, services, or accommodations to any member of the public, except as required by State law.

(4) Supersedes and preempts local ordinances, regulations, or resolutions that regulate or impose any requirement on employers pertaining to discriminatory practices in employment.

(5) Creates a new public policy of the state opposing discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin, or biological sex in public accommodations.

“This common sense law assures North Carolina residents, businesses and visitors that their reasonable expectation of privacy in public restrooms or changing facilities will be honored,” Stam said.

State Attorney General Roy Cooper – who is also the Democrat’s choice to challenge McCrory this fall – had an opposing view.

“North Carolina is better than this,” Cooper said. “Discrimination is wrong, period. That North Carolina is putting discrimination into the law is shameful. We have seen how this played out when Indiana tried it – business left the state, or thought twice about bringing in new jobs, and millions of dollars in revenue was lost.”

Rep. Rodney Moore, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, said, “Let’s drill down and get to what the intent of this particular legislation is. This is really not about bathrooms. This is about fear.”

Prior to the vote taken this week, the Civitas Institute released a poll which finds that a 69% majority of North Carolina voters believe the recently passed Charlotte bathroom ordinance is “unreasonable and unsafe.”

Gov. McCrory said he believes the action taken by the General Assembly was correct.

“I feel very strongly that we, as governor I need to protect the basic expectations of privacy that all individuals should be allowed to have especially in the sanctity of a restroom and Mr. Cooper disagrees with me with that Mr. Cooper obviously agrees on a more radical type of agenda which changes the basic norms that we have followed not only in North Carolina but the rest of the nation for generations,” McCrory stated.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

email author More by Cal