Charlotte council votes to extend transgender rights

by: Jenna Deery, DaShawn Brown, Blake Hanson, John Paul Updated:

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CHARLOTTE - Mayor Jennifer Roberts spoke to business owners less than 24 hours after Charlotte City Council passed a controversial non-discrimination ordinance.

"I think Charlotte looks very bright today," Roberts said.

The law bans businesses from discriminating against someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Hundreds packed council chambers Monday night to voice their support or opposition to the bill.

Council approved the ordinance, 7-4.

"I think that anything that makes Charlotte look like a welcoming city is a great thing for our future," Roberts said.

Many people are worried about one of the more controversial aspects of the ordinance that allows people to use a restroom in the gender they personally identify.

People opposed to the law said it will give sexual predators a way to target children.

If businesses don't comply and someone files a complaint, a committee will review it. The penalty is up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail after three prior convictions.

But Charlotte city leaders said other cities with similar ordinances don't see a rise in sexual crimes.

Trespassing and indecent exposure laws are still in effect.

Channel 9 reached out the CMS leaders, and a spokesperson said they are still reviewing the ordinance.

Leaders said it's not about bathrooms, it's about equal rights, and the law makes Charlotte inclusive. 

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory — a former mayor of Charlotte, one of the 20 largest cities in the U.S. according to census figures — said in an email Sunday that changing the policy on restrooms could "create major public safety issues."

"Also, this action of allowing a person with male anatomy, for example, to use a female restroom or locker room will most likely cause immediate State legislative intervention which I would support as governor," he wrote in the email to two Council members.

The issue has been part of a national debate that included the high-profile defeat of a nondiscrimination ordinance late last year by voters in Houston, and LGBT advocates worried bathroom-access fears would be used elsewhere to fight equal-rights measures. South Dakota legislators recently passed a bill requiring students to use bathrooms corresponding to their sex at birth, though it hasn't been signed by the governor.

In North Carolina, the advocacy group Equality NC issued a statement criticizing McCrory for "perpetuating the same tired and debunked myths about transgender people and public safety." Executive director Chris Sgro accused the governor and legislators of trying "to bully the Charlotte City Council with threats to strip municipalities of their rights to govern."

During the meeting, about 140 members of the public got one minute each to give the council their opinions on the measure. Because the council chambers were filled to capacity, some speakers had to stay in an adjacent room and await their time.

Materials given to the council ahead of the meeting cited some residents' concerns that sexual predators would use the ordinance to gain entry to women's restrooms for assault or indecent exposure, but it also noted that staff researchers hadn't uncovered any evidence of an increase in such crimes in cities with non-discrimination ordinances.

Before the meeting, several hundred people stood outside in a wind-driven rain to protest the proposal, holding signs with messages such as: "No Men In Women's Restrooms" and "Keep Kids Safe."

Chris Williams, a 30-year-old father of three, passed out "No" stickers to the crowd, saying most Charlotte residents "stand with religious values."

"I don't want my kids having to even question, 'Why is there this person in the restroom?'" he said. "I don't think they should even be faced with that question and that concern."

The measure adds sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status as attributes protected from discrimination when it comes to public accommodations including restaurants, retail stores and other businesses. It would take effect in April. Public school would not be affected by the law.

A similar measure was narrowly defeated by the Charlotte City Council in March 2015, even after the removal of a provision that would have allowed bathroom use based on gender identity. Local officials later announced that transgender people could use the bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity in city- and county-owned facilities.

Members of Charlotte's LGBT community said in a survey the changes are needed because they have been denied service, received poor service or experienced disparaging comments, according to supplemental materials attached to Monday's Council agenda.

Opponents of the measure — including some clergy and business owners — have sent the City Council a letter saying businesses should have the right to refuse service based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Franklin Graham was not pleased with the decision and posted the following on Facebook:

Shame on Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts and the City Council members who voted last night to pass an ordinance that would allow people to use the bathroom of their choice, not based on their biological sex. It’s not over though. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has been clear that this is a bad policy and said if the city passed it, immediate legislative action would likely be taken by the state. I hope they will take swift action to strike down this dangerous ordinance or bring it to a referendum for voters to decide. If this were put to a vote in Charlotte, I’m sure it would be overwhelmingly defeated by Democrats and Republicans alike. I appreciate council members Ed Driggs, Claire Fallon, Greg Phipps, and Kenny Smith for having the courage to do the right thing and vote NO.

STATEMENT from Charlotte City Council:

The Charlotte City Council approved amendments to the city’s Non-Discrimination Ordinances Monday which add marital and familial status, sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity to the list of protected characteristics in the existing Non-Discrimination Ordinances.

“I am pleased that Charlotte is now among the more than 250 cities and counties to offer similar protections,” said Mayor Jennifer Roberts. “Tonight’s vote sends the signal that Charlotte is a welcoming city that strives to treat everyone equally and with dignity and respect.”

The 7-4 vote came after hearing comments from more than 100 speakers. The approved amendments will affect the following areas:

Public accommodations:  Businesses and other public accommodations that serve the public are prohibited from discriminating based on any protected characteristic.

Passenger vehicle for hire: Taxi cab and limousine companies and drivers may not refuse to transport any person on the basis of any protected characteristic.

Commercial non-discrimination: Businesses that contract with the city may not discriminate against their vendors, suppliers, subcontractors or commercial customers on the basis of any protected characteristic.

The changes to the ordinance will go into effect April 1.

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