Local governments cautious, deliberate as they craft non-discrimination ordinances

Elected officials joined LGBTQ advocates Wednesday night for a virtual seminar as cities, towns and counties continue to craft new local non-discrimination ordinances.

In December a state ban on new local protections — including nondiscrimination ordinances for employment and housing — was lifted. The ban was a legacy of the  brutal fight over HB 2 and HB 142, the controversial laws that excluded lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from statewide nondiscrimination protections. Since its expiration, six communities have unanimously voted to pass LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances — Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough, Durham, Greensboro, Orange County.

Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC.

LGBTQ advocates say it’s vital to continue this wave of local ordinances even as the Equality Act heads to the U.S. Senate after passing the U.S. House.

“We’re very excited that we went from zero percent of the population to seven percent of North Carolina protected almost overnight,” said Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC, in Wednesday’s virtual event. “And we hope that we’ll see many, many more non-discrimination ordinances so people can enjoy access to fair housing, public accommodations and non-discrimination in employment.”

Allison Scott, director for Impact and Innovation at the Campaign for Southern Equality, stressed the importance of local governments passing new ordinances — not just resolutions — ensuring non-discrimination protections.

“Resolutions by their very nature and symbolic and they lack permanence,” Scott said. “The last thing our community needs is another symbolic gesture.”

“We need ordinances that can step into their place and really help move the needle forward,” she said, not something that cannot be enforced and is subject to the whims of whoever may be in office.

“We hear from people daily and weekly who undergo discrimination in north Carolina, whether it be employment or public accommodations,” Scott said.

“I don’t know how as a state or a people if we don’t do more than just words,” Scott said.

HB 142 gave the North Carolina General Assembly sole discretion over determining access to public accommodations such as restrooms and changing areas, Scott said. That’s why LGBTQ advocates are still pushing for a full repeal of the law. But in the meantime, local ordinances can expand protections in places where North Carolinians currently have none.

As local communities look at their options, not all are dealing with the same challenges.

Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle said her town council crafted and passed a resolution as soon as they were legally able. But they made progress on the issue well before that.

“LGBTQ rights and equality were on the radar long before I was mayor,” Lavelle said.

The town had a non-discrimination ordinance (NDO) for its own employees years ago and that option has always been available to towns and cities in North Carolina.

“But every community is a little different in terms of how you get to this place of passing an NDO,” Lavelle said.

Being a smaller town with broad community agreement on the issue town made it easier for Carrboro, she said. 

Raleigh City Council Member Stormie Forte.

In Raleigh, things are a little more complicated. Non-discrimination protections are already in place for city employees and those who contract with the city. But they’re moving more slowly and carefully on a broader non-discrimination ordinance.

A chief concern, Forte said: avoiding the sort of backlash from the General Assembly that came when Charlotte passed a non-discrimination ordinance, kicking off a fight that led to HB2.

“We’re thinking about something that is enforceable,” Forte said. “But also doing it in a way that we’re not attracting attention to start this cycle up all over again in terms of some of the challenges that larger cities when they’ve taken on these measures have experienced — quite frankly, some backlash from the General Assembly.”

Enforcement is also a challenge. Carrboro is very welcoming and doesn’t necessarily present a lot of challenges in terms of people breaking the ordinance.

“Raleigh is definitely different,” Forte said.

Some of the larger cities and counties are talking about working together to do this right, Forte said.

“We don’t want to put something in place that’s not enforceable, and then people are depending on protections they don’t have,” Forte said.

As Johnson told Policy Watch last week, there has been tremendous progress at the federal level.

“We had three strong movements at the top of the year with the Biden administration,” Johnson said. “The reversal of the trans military ban, we had the interpretation of Bostock throughout his administration to utilize sex as sexual orientation and gender identity and then we had Housing and Urban Development also interpreting sex, with regard to discrimination, as sexual orientation and gender identity in terms of fair housing. Those are three huge things but we still have a long, long way to go.”

There’s no guarantee the Equality Act will pass the Senate, Johnson said.

“It passed the House but it has an uphill battle in the Senate,” she said. “It needs 60 votes in the Senate and as you saw in the almost fully partisan vote in the House, it’s going to take some maneuvering to get to that 60 and really ratify the Equality Act.”

Progress at the local level is still necessary, she said,  whatever the progress nationally.

“Everyone needs local protections, regardless,” Johnson said. “You’d want to have it ideally on all three levels of the government. Even though we’re part of a federal and a state framework, you want to have local mechanisms you can access. And that is why we see a federal civil rights code and civil rights statutes at the state level and then in some cities.”

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