Carrboro Town Council passes new LGBTQ protections after end of state ban

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On Tuesday the town of Carrboro became the second municipality to pass a new LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance after a state ban on such ordinances expired last month. The move follows Hillsborough’s passage of a similar ordinance Monday.

“This is who we want to be and this is who we are,” said town council member Randee Haven-O’Donnell before the council’s unanimous passage of the ordinance.

The town committed to this move since back in March of 2016, after the General Assembly passed House Bill 2, the controversial state law that excluded lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from statewide nondiscrimination protections. The law lead to international headlines, mass protests and boycotts that ultimately cost the state more than half a billion dollars. Though House Bill 142 partially repealed HB 2, it locked in place a ban on new LGBTQ protections — including nondiscrimination ordinances for employment and housing — until this last month.

In a special meeting five years ago, the council committed to passing non-discrimination protections as soon as it became possible.

“It’s been really interesting to me to hear how many people remember us having that meeting nearly five years ago and how many people remember us making this commitment to our neighbors,” said council member Damon Seils. “So that’s been pretty gratifying.

The new ordinance, part of the town code, makes it unlawful “for any proprietor or their employer, keeper, or manager in a place of public accommodation to deny any person, except for reasons applicable alike to all persons, regardless of race, natural hair or hairstyles, ethnicity, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin or ancestry, marital or familial status, pregnancy, veteran status, religious belief or non-belief, age, or disability the full enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges thereof.”

The ordinance goes further than Hillsborough’s in spelling out specific consequences for violation of the ordinance.

“Any person, firm, or corporation violating any provisions of this Article shall, under G.S. 14-4(a), be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor,” the ordinance reads. “And shall be fined five hundred dollars ($500.00). Each and every day during which such discrimination continues shall be deemed a separate offense.”

Any violator of the code may  “be subject to an enforcement action brought by the Town under G.S. 160A-175(d) and (e) for an appropriate equitable remedy, 3 including but not limited to a mandatory or prohibitory injunction commanding the defendant to correct the conduct prohibited under this Article.”

It was important to lay out remedies and penalties for a few different reasons, said Mayor Lydia Lavelle.

“Not that I necessarily anticipate we will have many if any large number of people who are violating this,” Lavelle said. “But I kind of feel like we understand that it’s such a strong value to this community we wanted to have some teeth in it. And because we know this is ultimately an ordinance that others might see and try to replicate or duplicate.”

In June the U.S. Supreme Court held that a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But that doesn’t cover those working for businesses of fewer than 15 people, in gig economy positions like ride-share drivers and independent contractors. Municipalities still have an important role in making sure those workers are covered, LGBTQ advocates say, as the North Carolina General Assembly doesn’t appear likely to extend those nondiscrimination protections statewide.

Democrats had hoped to gain a majority in the General Assembly in the recent election, making full repeal of HB 2, HB 142 and the extension of statewide nondiscrimination protections more likely. Instead, Democrats lost seats in the legislature. But Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, was easily reelected and the party maintained enough seats to sustain his vetoes.

That may be necessary as new local ordinances are likely to prompt action by the General Assembly as lawmakers return to Raleigh this week for the new legislative session.

“We’re doing what we’re doing because we don’t have statewide protections, right?” said Lavelle.

Passing local protections makes North Carolina the 48th state that has either statewide or local protections, Lavelle said.

“So we were really an outlier when we had the ability to do this until December 1,” she said. “Forty-seven other states either have protections like this or they allow their cities, counties, towns to do this. And so, this is not like some odd thing that we’re suddenly allowed to do here in North Carolina.”

Council members said they had already gotten push-back on the ordinance in the form of an e-mail campaign.

“We have gotten well over 100 e-mails from Christians that are entitled ‘Oppose Anti-religious liberty ordinance,'” said council member Jacquelyn Gist.

Speaking as a Christian, Gist said, the ordinance is about protecting liberty — religious and otherwise — by protecting everyone’s rights.

“Religious liberty to me means the liberty to believe what you want to believe,” Gist said. “It means liberty and freedom from religion as much as it means liberty to have religion.”

“The push out there to limit peoples’ religious faith and how they live it is really, really dangerous,” Gist said. “It means working toward a state religion. What we’re doing here is working toward a government that’s free from religion. I personally believe faith is meaningless if you’re told you have to have it.”

The Chapel Hill Town Council is expected to pass a similar ordinance at its meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday and the city of Durham is expected to take up this issue later this month. Other municipalities across the state, large and small, are preparing their own ordinances.