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North Carolina law barring anti-discrimination measures draws sharp backlash

  • Author: MOTOKO RICH
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published March 24, 2016

A day after Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina signed a sweeping law eliminating anti-discrimination protections for all lesbians, gays and bisexuals and barring transgender people from using bathrooms that do not match the gender they were born with, the battle lines were clear in a bitterly divided state.

On social media and in public rallies, civil rights groups, businesses and politicians expressed dismay at the law, which was passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by the governor within just 12 hours during a hasty special session on Wednesday.

American Airlines, which employs 14,000 people in the state and has its second largest hub in Charlotte, along with other companies with operations in the state, including Apple, Dow Chemical, PayPal, Red Hat and Biogen, all issued statements critical of the new law.

"Our future as Americans should be focused on inclusion and prosperity, and not discrimination and division," Apple said in a statement. "We were disappointed to see Gov. McCrory sign this legislation."

The immediate trigger for the legislature's action was the passage of an anti-discrimination ordinance in Charlotte last month that would permit transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, rather than their gender at birth. But the law passed by the legislature on Wednesday night, which prohibits municipalities from passing their own ordinances allowing such bathroom use, also prevents cities from protecting gays and bisexual people against discrimination generally.

Conservative groups, using the hashtag #keepncsafe, were quick to praise the legislature and thanked the governor for signing a bill they said would protect women and children from unwanted advances from biological males in bathrooms.

With the November election approaching, political observers said the law, signed by McCrory, a Republican who is running for re-election, was clearly aimed at galvanizing the party's conservative base in a state where it controls the legislature and most offices elected statewide. "This is not a state that you spend a lot of time trying to sway swing voters," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "You really try to get your voters to the polls and you maximize the vote among your constituents."

McCrory had originally run as a moderate but has often gone along with the conservative legislature. This year, there is added pressure to do that, Guillory said. "Everything has to do with the heated political temperature of the moment," he said. "It's an indication of how the national debate, with Trump and Cruz being the two leading candidates on the Republican side, has ripple effects into state politics."

Critics of the law, which also prohibits local governments from setting minimum wages above the state level and strips veterans of anti-discrimination protections, vowed to fight back in the court of public opinion as well as investigate legal remedies. On Twitter, McCrory's Democratic opponent in the governor's race, Attorney General Roy Cooper, posted a video and joined numerous critics who voiced their anger under the hashtag #WeAreNotThis.

Just as strong as the political backlash was outspoken reaction from the business community. Mitchell Gold, chairman of Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams Home Furnishings, one of a dwindling number of companies still manufacturing furniture in the state, said the new law was "outrageous."

"It's so un-American, and it's so shortsighted," said Gold, who is gay. "The folks that want this passed — when you look at who are these people, they are the people who are using their outdated, misguided ill-informed religious teachings to discriminate."

The law could lead to some economic fallout for the state. The NCAA, which is planning to hold tournament events in North Carolina in 2017 and 2018, said in a statement that it would "continue to monitor current events, which include issues surrounding diversity, in all cities bidding on NCAA championships and events, as well as cities that have already been named as future host sites."

And on Twitter, a new account calling for a boycott of the state emerged in response to the law. Chris Sacca, a Silicon Valley investor, implied he would no longer invest in businesses in the state.

In Charlotte, Mayor Jennifer Rogers said she was "appalled at the speed of the law being passed" without consideration of the ramifications for the business community. "The fallout is just starting," she said, adding, "We are very concerned about the ripple effects and I do believe that discrimination is not good for business."

Some political observers noted that the state legislation, which deprives local municipalities of control over their own laws, seemed antithetical to conservative values. "This doesn't seem conservative to me," said Mac McCorkle, a former Democratic consultant and an associate professor of public policy at Duke University. "This seems authoritarian."