North Carolina legislators decided to rein in local governments by approving a bill Wednesday that prevents cities and counties from passing their own anti-discrimination rules. The legislation, signed into law later by Gov. Pat McCrory, dealt a blow to the LGBT movement after success with protections in cities across the country.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly took action after Charlotte city leaders last month approved a broad anti-discrimination measure that allows transgender people to use the restroom aligned with their gender identity. McCrory signed the bill into law Wednesday night, said Josh Ellis, the governor's communications director. McCrory, who was the mayor of Charlotte for 14 years, has criticized the local ordinance.
Although 12 House Democrats joined all Republicans present in voting for the bill in the afternoon, later all Senate Democrats in attendance walked off their chamber floor during the debate in protest. Remaining Senate Republicans gave the legislation unanimous approval.
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"We choose not to participate in this farce," Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh said after he left the chamber.
Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden said he couldn't recall such an action before a vote, which he said was a "serious breach of their obligation to the citizens that voted to elect them."
Republicans and their allies have said intervening is necessary to protect the safety of women and children from "radical" action by Charlotte. There have been arguments that any man — perhaps a sex offender — could enter a woman's restroom or locker room simply by calling himself transgender.
"It's common sense — biological men should not me be in women's showers, locker rooms and bathrooms," said GOP Rep. Dean Arp of Monroe before the chamber voted 82-26 for the legislation after nearly three hours of debate.
Gay rights leaders and transgender people said the legislation demonizes the community and espouses bogus claims about increasing the risk of sexual assaults. They say the bill will deny lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people essential protections needed to ensure they can get a hotel room, hail a taxi or dine at a restaurant without fear.
"Protections for LGBT people against discrimination are common sense," Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, said in a release after the vote. Advocates had hoped to pressure McCrory into vetoing the bill, beginning with a Thursday evening rally.
GOP leaders scheduled the one-day session at the cost of $42,000 because Charlotte's ordinance was set to take effect April 1. Otherwise, the legislature wouldn't have returned until late April.
Current Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who pressed since taking office to get the anti-discrimination ordinance approved, said she was appalled by the legislature's actions.
"The General Assembly is on the wrong side of progress. It is on the wrong side of history," Roberts said in a prepared statement.
The bill bars local governments statewide from prohibiting discrimination in public places based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It directs all public schools, government agencies and public college campuses to require bathrooms or locker rooms be designated for use only by people based on their biological sex. They can offer single-occupancy facilities.
Transgender people who have transitioned to the opposite sex wouldn't be affected if they get their birth certificate changed.
Democrats said the bill makes North Carolina less inclusive and interferes with local governments. They say the state could also risk billions in federal education dollars with the school policy.
"This is really not about bathrooms," said Democratic Rep. Rodney Moore of Charlotte. "This is about fear."
Ordinance supporters and opponents spoke to legislators in House and Senate committees, telling of their personal stories and fears. They included Skye Thompson, 15, of Greenville, who was born female but now identifies as male. He told senators they were putting him in danger by requiring use of a women's restroom.
"I've dealt with bullying my whole life and now I worry that my own state lawmakers are bullying me as well. I feel bullied by you guys," Thompson said.
Donna Eaton of Cary said everybody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect but is worried that without Wednesday's bill "it's going to open the door for people with malicious intent who would masquerade as transgenders to come in and actually take advantage and have access to our kids."
In a video, Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is running for governor against McCrory, called Wednesday's actions "shameful" and "unprecedented" and said they could hurt the state's economy.
Russell Peck, the governor's campaign manager, in turn accused Cooper of supporting "forcing women and young girls to use the same restrooms and locker rooms as grown men."
Legislation requiring transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding with their birth gender have failed recently. South Dakota's legislature failed to override Gov. Dennis Daugaard's veto and a similar bill in Tennessee bill died Tuesday.
The bill also would also make clear local governments can't require area businesses to pay workers above the current minimum wage, with some exceptions.