Aug 9, 2021 - News

Charlotte has a new nondiscrimination ordinance. Here’s what you need to know.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Aug. 9.

City Council voted unanimously Monday to expand Charlotte’s  nondiscrimination ordinance, more than five years after the last effort led state lawmakers to retaliate with a “bathroom bill” that prompted a national backlash.

  • The ordinance prevents discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, natural hairstyle and other factors.

Driving the news: The vote came after nearly 40 speakers lined up to speak on the matter. While there were a handful of homophobic comments, most of the speakers supported the ordinance.

  • And although the two Republican council members wanted the ordinance to extend to discrimination over political beliefs, they still voted for the ordinance, creating a rare moment when council showed a unified front on a controversial topic.

Zoom out: The climate is markedly different now than five years ago. In the months leading up to the meeting, both Republicans and Democrats on council worked on proposals.

The previous version of the nondiscrimination ordinance had been in place since 1968.

  • The new version governs discrimination in employment. In earlier drafts, it only applied to employers with less than 15 workers, but on Sunday, an updated draft was released to cover employers of all sizes after LGBTQ advocates pushed for such changes.
  • It also covers public accommodations, which means businesses cannot discriminate against their customers.

Why it matters: It’s a victory in the long battle for LGBTQ rights in North Carolina, following a bitter 2016 controversy that still haunts the state.

Charlotte’s LGBTQ community have been asking for nondiscrimination protections of this kind or of this type for a very long time,” Matt Comer, communications director for Charlotte Pride, tells me. “It is time now to make this final step.”

The state of play: Two ordinance updates were proposed, one from Republican Tariq Bokhari and another released by city attorney Patrick Baker to council members late last month.

  • There were no specific plans for council to consider Bokhari’s proposal separately. But he told me recently he wanted to suggest changes to the the city attorney’s version.
  • There are many similarities between the two, but Bokhari’s latest version would’ve protected political affiliation as a protected class.
  • We should also just as equally be passionate about people being discriminated against because of their political affiliation or their political activities,” he said. 

Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt told me late last month the goal was to fill in the gaps in state and federal law. For example, she said housing is already covered, so it would be redundant to include it in the city ordinance.

  • That’s why the workplace protections were targeted at small companies, she said at the time. Thanks to a 2020 Supreme Court ruling, LGBTQ workers at companies with more than 15 employees are protected from employment discrimination under federal law.

Other local governments in North Carolina have approved workplace provisions that apply to all employers.

Flashback: The last time Charlotte approved a nondiscrimination ordinance was in early 2016. The ordinance said that businesses couldn’t deny service to customers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity — but it also said transgender individuals can use either men’s or women’s restrooms, depending on their gender identity, the Observer reported at the time.

  • Shortly thereafter, the General Assembly responded by passing House Bill 2, which required people to use the bathroom corresponding with the sex listed on their birth certificate. It also prohibited local governments from passing their own nondiscrimination ordinances.

The response from businesses was swift: the NBA moved its All-Star Game from Charlotte, musicians canceled concerts, and companies like PayPal backed out of expansion plans in the state or went elsewhere. The AP estimated HB2 cost North Carolina $3.76 billion in lost business over a dozen years.

Eventually, Democrats and Republicans compromised and overturned the bathroom bill. But the law that replaced it restricted cities from passing nondiscrimination ordinances until December 2020.

  • Since then, nine cities and towns have approved nondiscrimination ordinances, including Chapel Hill, Durham, Asheville and Greensboro. None of them, including Charlotte’s, applies to restrooms.

What they’re saying: A coalition of LGBTQ groups on Friday, including representatives from Charlotte Pride, Charlotte Black Pride and the Campaign for Southern Equality, sent a letter to council pushing for two major changes ahead of Monday’s vote.

  • One, they asked that the ordinance apply to all employers, not just those with 14 or fewer workers. Although there are federal protections, they say the federal complaint process is confusing and cumbersome.
  • Two, they pushed for greater enforcement, such as fines. Other cities, such as Durham and Carrboro, levy fines and make violations of the ordinance a misdemeanor.

The ordinance does not make violations a crime. Under a process that has been in place for years in Charlotte, a division of the community relations committee reviews complaints.

The ordinance is a step toward “lived equality for LGBTQIA+ people,” Erin Barbee, director of public relations, advocacy and policy on the Charlotte LGBT Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, said in an email.

  • But the LGBT Chamber was one of the groups pushing for the ordinance to cover all employers, and prevent discrimination in housing.
  • She said the local government should codify these protections, even if they are already granted at the federal level, in case new presidential administrations, Congress or the courts change federal laws or interpret them differently.

What’s next: The employment discrimination piece will likely take effect Jan. 1, 2022. All other components will likely be effective Oct. 1 of this year.

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