The high-profile legal spat over North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill may be inspiring – not deterring – some of the law’s fiercest advocates to push for similar legislation in their own towns.
Just hours after North Carolina was sued Monday over HB2 by the federal government, a pastor in Rock Hill, South Carolina, took his plea to local leaders, asking them to consider an ordinance that would prohibit people from using restrooms that don’t match their biological sexes – even at private businesses.
“The inner defenses become more and more entrenched and more trenchant in their adamancy about an issue. . . . The people at the core of this feel that it’s something worth fighting for,” said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill.
Rock Hill’s City Council didn’t vote or publicly debate Pastor Joey Deese’s proposal. He presented the idea during a citizen’s hearing portion of a public meeting, which doesn’t guarantee the council will take up the issue in any way.
Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols declined to comment after the meeting.
Because HB2 is subject to several legal challenges and the Supreme Court has not previously heard a transgender bathroom-use case, activists on both sides are operating with “competing interpretations” of federal laws, said John Dinan, a political scientist at Wake Forest University.
“This is a fluid area of law,” Dinan said, adding that the continued push in some localities for HB2-like laws isn’t necessarily surprising. “Both sides have arguments on their sides.”
Scenes like that in Rock Hill have unfolded in other cities across the country since North Carolina passed its controversial law in March. The movement – largely driven by Republican elected officials and some religious leaders – appears not to have slowed, despite U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s claim that HB2’s provisions violate the Civil Rights Act.
For example, in South Carolina’s General Assembly last month, Republican Sen. Lee Bright introduced his own version of the law to prohibit, in schools and government buildings, transgender people from using bathrooms corresponding with their gender identities.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley quickly turned down Bright’s suggestion, saying the issue of where transgender people use the restroom isn’t a problem in her state. Bright’s bill ultimately failed to gather enough support to move through the legislature.
North Carolina’s fight over HB2 has unfolded over the past week with dueling deadlines and lawsuits from state and federal officials. In a major development Friday, President Barack Obama’s administration directed all public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identities.
Democrats from North Carolina and beyond have warned that federal funding is at stake if schools and state lawmakers don’t follow federal laws.
Still, others have followed in North Carolina’s footsteps in recent weeks, with a school board in Florida adopting HB2-like rules for students and a city council in Alabama passing a similar ordinance. Both measures drew intense criticism from local and national advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
The ordinance in Oxford, Alabama, was repealed soon after it passed. The bathroom policy adopted by Marion County Public Schools is being challenged in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Earlier this week, Fort Worth was roiled when Texas’ lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, demanded the resignation of the local school superintendent after the superintendent ordered schools in the Fort Worth Independent School District to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their gender identities. The superintendent declined to step aside.
In Rock Hill, Deese, of Oakdale Baptist Church, said he felt strongly that local leaders should take a “biblical stand” on the issue.
He told the Rock Hill Herald newspaper this week that he plans to petition the York County Council for action soon. Deese is circulating an online petition to get the city and county elected bodies to pass an ordinance “to protect our women and children” in restrooms and locker rooms.
Deese is “much more likely to get an airing” with county council members, Huffmon said, noting that York County holds partisan elections for the county council but not the city council. The city council in Rock Hill – which is York County’s largest municipality – would likely be concerned about how an HB2-like ordinance would affect tourism, Huffmon said.
In Rock Hill, sports tourism to the city’s various parks and outdoor amenities is a multimillion-dollar business. Given the highly publicized economic losses for North Carolina over HB2, Huffmon predicts that Rock Hill leaders would have financial worries with a proposal such as Deese’s.
York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell said this week that he’d told Deese such an ordinance was “not necessary.”
For Deese, though, the issue is deeply personal. He was active in opposing the Charlotte ordinance earlier this year that led to the North Carolina’s legislature drafting HB2.
“As a pastor, I believe it’s biblically wrong,” he said.
He wants a local ordinance to go further than North Carolina’s state law does. Deese said city leaders should make it a crime for private businesses to allow bathroom use based on gender identity. Men and women, according to their birth sexes, Deese said, should use separate restrooms and facilities.
For local advocate Ellen Green, Deese’s proposal in Rock Hill comes as no surprise.
“People seem to want to address this out of fear,” she said. “It seems like transgender issues now are in the same place gays and lesbians were 15 or 20 years ago.”
Green is a co-founder of Affirmation of York County, a faith-based support group for the LGBT community and its families and friends.
Instead of causing HB2 supporters to dig in for a long fight, Green said she wanted the heightened attention to lead to greater awareness of the challenges transgender people face. Transgender people, she said, have been “left behind” while gays and lesbians have gained more social acceptance in recent years.
“In a lot of ways, our children’s needs have been met,” Green said. “And the transgender seem like the next group that needs help.”
Marchant reports for The Herald in Rock Hill, South Carolina.