March 23 marks one year since the legislature’s Republican majority met in a one-day special session and rammed through one of the most divisive and destructive pieces of legislation in state history – House Bill 2.
The legislature’s leaders did it with little notice and a fig leaf of a public hearing. They did it despite all the Senate’s Democrats walking out and refusing to vote. And they did it knowing it would bring yet another challenge to the constitutionality of their laws. Then, before the clock struck midnight on that regrettable day, Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law what gay-rights advocates call the most anti-LGBT measure in the nation.
The political actors in this mess are clear and McCrory has paid for his role with his job. But one group that bears responsibility has escaped notice – the state’s business leaders. Now, as the law nears the one-year mark and more fallout looms, they should finally, belatedly act.
Some local chambers have opposed the bill and about 200 CEOs have signed a letter of opposition presented by the Human Rights Campaign, a LGBT-rights group. But the state’s biggest employers, taxpayers and political contributors have been either shy or inept when it comes to applying the economic pressure that legislators find difficult to withstand.
That has not been the case elsewhere. In Georgia, business leaders stopped a “bathroom bill” and Texas businesses have mobilized to fight one there. In Indiana, a “religious freedom” bill that would have allowed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was amended after business leaders demanded that it be changed.
In North Carolina, the most prominent pressure has come from outsiders. Bruce Springsteen and other entertainers have canceled shows. Six states have banned nonessential travel to North Carolina by their state employees. The NBA moved its All-Star Game from Charlotte. Now the NCAA has given the state only a few weeks to get rid of HB2 or North Carolina will be eliminated as a championship and tournament host through 2022.
The state chamber of commerce originally responded to HB2 with silence and eventually proposed modest changes. McCrory said the chamber actually supported provisions tagged on to the bill that outlawed local minimum wages and blocked workplace discrimination lawsuits from being filed in state courts, a provision since removed.
The chamber denies that its silence was bought by these provisions, but that hardly matters. What matters is that the chamber did nothing as the state’s economy suffered losses and its national image became the stuff of late night TV jokes. Isn’t promoting the state’s economy and reputation the chamber’s whole reason for being?
Last week, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good and Charlotte business leaders came out in favor of House Bill 186, a so-called compromise bill. All it compromises are the rights of gay and transgender people by allowing for local anti-discrimination laws to be put up for a vote if a small percentage of voters petition for a referendum. That would put LGBT rights on par with local liquor laws.
Charlotte-based Bank of America has objected to HB2 but hasn’t raised hell. Other banks are Sunday quiet. The state’s big tech and pharmaceutical companies don’t like the law, and neither do Joe and Jane down the street. A High Point University poll shows 59 percent of North Carolina residents think HB2 is not necessary to protect public safety and privacy. What are the big business powers doing about it? Getting rid of HB2 shouldn’t be a job that the state NAACP, the ACLU and gay rights groups take on alone. This law goes to the core of what North Carolina stands for – and what it should stand against.
It is as North Carolina native and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said when the Justice Department sued North Carolina over HB2: “Let me speak now directly to the people of the great state, the beautiful state, my home state of North Carolina. You have been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm. That is just not the case. What this law does is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society, and all it does is harm innocent Americans.”
Now the Justice Department has been turned over to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a conservative former Alabama senator who has convinced President Trump to withdraw federal objections to HB2. That step backward has bolstered the resolve of those North Carolina state legislators who have chosen to stand firmly in the schoolhouse’s bathroom door.
But it shouldn’t weaken the resolve nor remove the obligation of those who lead North Carolina outside of the legislature to fix the damage HB2 has caused and will continue to cause until it is repealed.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com