Who can blame North Carolina’s restaurant and hotel operators for wishing the whole House Bill 2 controversy would just vanish into thin air, as if it had never existed? They’d love to see the clock rolled back to that glorious time before Charlotte strengthened the city’s anti-discrimination rules and before the General Assembly responded with a law that does the opposite – codifying discrimination against lesbian, gay and transgendered people.
It’s because of that law, known as H.B. 2, that the state’s hospitality industry stands to lose millions in spending as groups and performers cancel events in protest. So now the N.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association hopes to arrange a deal to get the money flowing again.
The outlines: Charlotte repeals its ordinance. Then the legislature, presumably with Gov. Pat McCrory on board, repeals H.B. 2. Everybody goes home happy.
Alas, if it were only that simple. When the legislature passed H.B. 2 into law during a rush-job special session in March and when McCrory quickly signed it, it was as if they’d gone to squeezing on a very large tube of very nasty toothpaste. The deal proposed by the hospitality folks would not and could not put the toothpaste back. Too much damage has been done.
The state’s largest city would be forced to back away from a sensible, humane policy that its governing body carefully considered and duly approved. Charlotte wanted to guarantee that people could use bathrooms in public buildings matching the gender with which they identify, not necessary the gender designated on their birth certificate.
H.B. 2 overruled that understandable local choice. Even if the law were repealed, if Charlotte’s measure also were nullified, there would be a de facto bar against any locality in North Carolina taking similar steps. So long as conservative Republicans were running the legislature, with a fellow Republican in the governor’s office, a sibling of H.B. 2 would hang over their heads. The state would still be helping set a national standard for intolerance toward the transgendered.
But even while the bathroom provisions have been an attention-grabbing flash point, the harm done by H.B. 2 is broader. It also prohibits localities from enacting any anti-discrimination rules stricter than the state’s – which don’t cover acts of discrimination on account of people’s sexual orientation. North Carolina would remain a place where a city such as Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro or Cary could not bring lesbians and gays beneath the umbrella of their own anti-discrimination codes without expecting another round of legislative retaliation. The toothpaste won’t go back.
The law needlessly went out of its way to position North Carolina in the vanguard of anti-LGBT bigotry. The state now stands to pay a heavy price, in particular with the NCAA’s relocation of several college sports tournaments and the Atlantic Coast Conference’s decision to move championship events away from North Carolina venues. Economic losses could be severe, and there’s no telling the costs of seeing the state spotlighted for its narrow-mindedness.
Republican legislators and McCrory, who’ve been feeling the heat as elections approach, may be tempted to go along with the kind of deal now being discussed. They might reason that if Charlotte doesn’t go along, they could try to blame its Democratic-controlled City Council for all the trouble.
Better, however, for the state’s long-range interests if Charlotte officials are prepared to hang tough and insist on real change. What that could mean, for instance, is not only an H.B. 2 repeal, but also a revamping of the state’s anti-discrimination standards so that sexual orientation is covered. That would be a positive outcome from an episode that is proving so costly for so many.