Locked in Committee
The past decade has seen landmark shifts in public opinion on LGBTQ rights. In North Carolina, Republican control has led to a backlogged wish list as advocacy groups work to drag the state up to national standards. Is this session when the dam breaks? // Art by Rob Dobi
State Sen. Natalie Murdock has spent months sitting on a secret. But as of Tuesday, March 30, she can finally share it.
The Democratic state senator is one of the primary sponsors of Senate Bill 396, the Equality for All Act. The newly introduced bill would provide statewide protections against multiple forms of discrimination—from housing to employment—for North Carolina’s LGBTQ residents.
Although a landmark Supreme Court decision last year ensured that LGBTQ Americans are protected from employment discrimination, the protection doesn’t apply to small businesses with 15 or fewer employees and North Carolina has yet to enshrine the protection as part of its state statute.
“I want our state to be known as a place where anyone can come to North Carolina and be treated with respect and dignity, and not be discriminated against,” Murdock said. “It’s just time that we turn the page in North Carolina.”
Murdock is one of a handful of Democratic lawmakers who introduced legislation this Tuesday that would enhance legal protections for the state’s LGBTQ residents. The package of bills includes Senate Bill 392/House Bill 452, which would ban the practice of conversion therapy on minors, and House Bill 451, which would fully repeal provisions established in the state’s now defunct bill, House Bill 2, and its successor, House Bill 142, for good. Additionally, House Bill 449 would eliminate both the gay and trans “panic defense,” a legal strategy that the LGBT Bar defines as asking “a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction, including murder.”
Similar bills have been filed before. But this particular package is the culmination of a months-long partnership between Equality NC, a political lobbying group and the oldest statewide organization for LGBTQ rights in the country, and the Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE), an Asheville-based organization that advocates for greater legal protections for LGBTQ residents across the South. The organizations have worked together on North Carolina-specific campaigns, and they’ve often invited legislators to the table. In the past, they’ve regularly endorsed political candidates ahead of local and national elections.
The package—branded under a campaign called “NC Is Ready”—is meant to apply pressure at the state, county, and city levels. The campaign was sparked by the expiration of HB142 in December, which, among other actions, had banned local governments from passing their local anti-discrimination laws. In the months since, multiple municipalities have acted, passing new local ordinances.
The bills—co-sponsored exclusively by Democrats, though they are seeking co-sponsors from across the aisle—appear to have full support from Democratic leadership.
“Today, @NCHouseDems and @NCSenateDems introduced a slate of legislation that would codify protections for the #LGBTQ community. NC is ready for LGBTQ equality!” tweeted House Democratic Leader Robert Reives after Tuesday’s press conference.
State-level progress is a long shot, but it would avoid what CSE Director of Impact and Innovation Allison Scott calls “patchwork policy.”
“Patchwork policy is a terrible position to put people in,” Scott said. “No one should ever lose their rights driving city to city. If you drive from Charlotte to Morganton, and you can be fired in one and not fired in the other, that is not just a problem for the city that doesn’t have the law; that’s a problem for our whole state.”
For decades, North Carolina trailed behind other states with legislation concerning sexual and gender minorities. North Carolina is one of 15 states that has not repealed its sodomy law. As late as 2008, a North Carolina police officer arrested two men under this law.
The gap widened, however, after Republicans took control of the statehouse in 2010. In 2012, North Carolina’s voters opted 61 percent to 39 percent to enshrine a ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions in the state’s constitution. Just two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Obergefell v. Hodges case to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.
Recently, efforts to strengthen LGBTQ protections have been met with inaction, with bills often receiving the equivalent of the silent treatment.
Democratic State Sen. Jay Chaudhuri’s hate crime legislation is one example. The bill—which would include sexual orientation and gender identity in the state’s list of protected hate crimes—and enhance penalties for perpetrators of these hate crimes, was filed in 2018 and again 2019. It failed to receive a hearing both times. It’s been introduced for the third time this session, and as of this story’s publication, it’s still waiting to be heard by a committee.
At least two of the newly introduced bills from Tuesday had been previously filed—including bills to ban conversion therapy, and prohibit statewide discrimination in employment and housing. Neither bill received a final vote, an outcome leaders in the state General Assembly maintain is normal.
“There are hundreds of bills filed every biennium and there could be any number of reasons why a particular bill doesn't fully advance through the legislative process,” wrote Pat Ryan, the deputy chief of staff for communications for State Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, in an email response to The Assembly.
The volume of bills is certainly overwhelming. “About 80% of the #ncga legislation this year seems to be a re-run of something that was debated in 2019/2020 but never became law,” tweeted The News & Observer’s Colin Campbell this week.
But Andrew Reynolds, a senior research scholar at Princeton University and former UNC-Chapel Hill professor, sees a specific strategy at work with legislative non-response to these bills. He says equality legislation is a “wedge issue” that moderate Republicans, out of fear of alienating their more conservative colleagues, don’t want to touch.
“The GOP is driven by gerrymandering and this battle just to win the Republican primary,” Reynolds said. “So you have very far-right Republicans, and they’re not gonna pass equality legislation. And I don’t think they want to make it a central part of their campaigns. They’re just going to block stuff.”
One explanation for why Republicans refuse to touch these bills could rest upon what happened after House Bill 2. Otherwise known as the Public Facilities and Privacy Act, the sweeping legislation was best known for mandating that North Carolinians could only use bathrooms that corresponded with their legal sex as opposed to their gender identity.
The law prompted national backlash. Big-name companies canceled plans to expand into the state, and celebrities canceled upcoming tour dates—which led to an estimated $400 million in lost investments, along with thousands of potential jobs. After the NCAA threatened to make the state ineligible to host championships through 2022, state lawmakers repealed the bathroom bill in 2017 with House Bill 142.
House Bill 142 put the state in a tense standoff. Transgender residents were neither protected nor prohibited from using the bathroom of their choosing. And cities or towns were prohibited from passing their own anti-discrimination legislation—the spark that had initially led to House Bill 2—until the bill’s sunset at the end of 2020.
Now that House Bill 142’s restrictions have expired, advocates see a new opportunity to push forward, and the NC Is Ready package embodies that hope. But opposition hasn’t gone away.
Some religious and conservative organizations in the state, like NC Values, have already come out in opposition to this new package of bills.
“LGBTQ activist groups and their allies in the General Assembly have exposed their radical agenda for North Carolina by filing these bills,” NC Values wrote in a press statement on Tuesday, urging its members to “encourage their legislators not to fall into the trap of using government to punish citizens who disagree about marriage, sex, and gender by violating their fundamental rights of free speech and freedom of religion.”
The organization has long been at the center of these fights. After Governor Cooper banned state funding for conversion therapy on minors, the organization stated that doing so was in violation of North Carolinians’ rights to freedom of speech and religion.
“[The executive order] violates the Fourteenth Amendment rights of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their own children,” NC Values wrote. Just last week, NC Values also praised a new bill that’s part of a national trend to ban transgender students from playing women’s sports in school.
But the ground is shifting. Ten years ago, groups like NC Values could point to strong majorities voting against proposals like same-sex marriage. Today, large majorities instead support increased protection for LGBTQ people, and long-standing debates like same-sex marriage are increasingly considered settled.
In 2019, the progressive Public Policy Polling found that 67 percent of North Carolinians—including 50 percent of Republicans—supported laws to protect LGBT people against discrimination.
“Republicans realize that this is a purple state,” Reynolds said. “If you look at the polls, even independents and Republicans support non-discrimination on a national level. The public opinion has moved even more in favor of equality.”
For now, advocates may find the most success advancing public opinion and making progress at the local level. But that isn’t stopping organizers from continuing to push at the state level.
“The minute we stop doing these [bills] is the minute that we guarantee nothing will ever happen,” Scott said. “If we keep bringing these bills up, no matter how many times it takes, and putting it in front of our legislatures, it makes them make a decision. They either have to recognize that this is an issue that North Carolina, and its people, want to talk about and want to enact, or they have to start going on record as being against that.”