RALEIGH — The first North Carolina municipalities are acting to expand LGBTQ rights again a month since the expiration of a moratorium on nondiscrimination ordinances agreed to years ago as a compromise to do away with the state's “bathroom bill.”
The governing board of Hillsborough, a town of 7,000 about 40 miles northwest of Raleigh, voted unanimously this week to approve new protections for people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and other differences.
Hillsborough's ordinance marks the first by a North Carolina town or city since the three-year ban expired Dec. 1.
“This is a step in the right direction," said Hillsborough board member Matt Hughes, who is openly gay, during Monday’s board meeting. In “so many places across the country, just not in the Southeast but really everywhere, people can marry the love of their life on a Saturday and get fired Monday when they show up at work."
Two other towns in Orange County planned discussions this week.
The city of Durham, with 275,000 people, will take up the issue next week, according to gay-rights groups.
Greensboro's City Council is also considering such protections as well.
“It’s a new day for LGBTQ North Carolinians, who for too long have lived under the legacy of discrimination in this state,” said Kendra Johnson, the executive director of Equality North Carolina. Her group and others started a campaign in the fall to urge cities and towns to act.
Johnson cited the painful legacy of House Bill 2, which the Republican-dominated legislature approved and then-GOP Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law in March 2016. The measure, which was a response to action by the Charlotte City Council, barred additional nondiscrimination ordinances by towns and cities.
A key disputed section of HB 2 required transgender people to use restrooms in many public buildings that corresponded to their sex at birth. It drew national condemnation and prompted several large corporations and sports teams to relocate events to other states.
In early 2017, newly elected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and GOP legislative leaders approved a replacement law that prohibited local governments from enacting new nondiscrimination ordinances for workplaces, hotels and restaurants until December 2020.
State legislators still control rules involving public bathrooms.
GOP lawmakers have shown little interest in approving statewide LGBTQ protections, which Cooper and other Democrats seek.
Hughes said the lack of comprehensive anti-bias laws from the legislature or Congress makes it incumbent upon local governments to act.
Some social conservatives said broad LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinances will violate the constitutionally protected free speech and religious liberties of business owners and others who hold sincerely held beliefs in opposition to gay marriage.
Hillsborough leaders are “attempting to punish people and businesses that don't hold to their government view of sexuality,” said Tami Fitzgerald with the North Carolina Values Coalition. Fitzgerald urged the board Monday not to approve the ordinance.
One board member, Kathleen Ferguson, said she respects differences on these issues but that she'll always side with policies that favor inclusivity.
Mayor Pro Tempore Mark Bell, who said he has a transgender child, was more direct.
“The thought of my kid in the future losing employment or health care or being discriminated against, especially on the grounds of someone’s religion — it's offensive,” Bell said.