The defining moment of the absurd special legislative session held this week in Raleigh had nothing to do with the common-sense decision by the Charlotte City Council to allow transgender people to use the public restroom that corresponds to their sexual identity – the way many other local governments and private companies do.
And it had nothing to do with the anti-worker provisions of the secretly crafted legislation that forbids cities from requiring companies that contract with local governments to pay decent wages – as damaging as those provisions are to workers and the economy.
And it wasn’t even about a provision debated on the House floor that takes away the right of workers who are fired simply because they are African-American or Jewish or female to sue under state law – as shocking as that provision is, joining North Carolina with Mississippi as the only places where workers cannot sue in state court for being fired people for their race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex or disability.
No, the defining moment in what has to be one of the most offensive special legislative sessions in North Carolina history came in the House on amendment proposed by Rep. Grier Martin that would have broadened the state’s nondiscrimination law to include military status, sexual orientation and gender identity.
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Martin’s proposal came after bill sponsor Rep. Dan Bishop boasted that the legislation, unveiled minutes before it was debated in a House committee, would establish a statewide nondiscrimination law that protects people in employment and public accommodations based on their race, religion, color, national origin, age, biological sex or disability.
Biological sex was added to make sure transgender people were not protected.
The ordinance passed by the Charlotte City Council also included protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in addition to the bathroom provision that was the subject of some of the worst demagoguery and fear-mongering to ever come out of the Legislative Building – and that’s quite a high bar to clear.
Bishop’s bill voids Charlotte’s protection of LGBT people from discrimination and prohibits any other local governments from protecting them either. That didn’t deter Bishop from repeatedly bellowing about what he called the historic statewide nondiscrimination standard the legislation established.
Martin’s amendment, the defining moment of the day, simply tried to broaden the basic protections to LGBT people across the state.
It is easy to describe the debate that followed. There wasn’t any. Rep. Paul Stam moved to table the proposal and the House voted 72-35 to kill the amendment.
That’s what the legislative record shows.
But what the vote means is that the majority of the state House affirmatively decided that is OK for companies to fire people who are gay simply because they are gay – in Charlotte and everywhere else in North Carolina.
They voted to allow hotels to refuse rooms to same-sex couples and let taxis refuse rides to transgender men and women. The majority of the House voted to give restaurants permission to refuse to serve a gay man and allow theaters to refuse to seat him based on his sexual orientation.
The legislation adopted by the General Assembly this week included this clause about public accommodations.
“It is the public policy of this State to protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of all individuals within the State to enjoy fully and equally the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of places of public accommodation free of discrimination…”
There is a similarly flowery paragraph about employment protections.
But it is not true. Not for all individuals, not for members of the LGBT community. They can still be openly discriminated against. The state House had a chance to change that Wednesday in a simple up or down vote.
They had a clear choice, equal rights or discrimination. And they chose discrimination.
That is the undeniable legacy of the 2016 special session of the General Assembly.
Chris Fitzsimon is the founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, a project of the N.C. Justice Center.