North Carolina Bids To Close the Door On Its Bathroom Wars

The North Carolina legislature has passed and sent to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper H.B. 142, unveiled last night as a compromise intended to end the state’s acrimonious year-long battle over discrimination laws and transgender persons’ access to bathrooms and changing rooms. From what I can see, it’s a basically sound measure that gives both sides much of what they legitimately asked.

HB2, the bill passed last March, was a response to a successful push in the city of Charlotte to enact anti-discrimination laws going well beyond state law in numerous areas, including making LGBT persons a protected class and regulating private actors in various ways (including bathroom policies) through employment and public accommodations laws. Opponents went to the state legislature and – as has happened in other states lately as well – proposed yanking back those portions of home rule that allowed for local ordinances to go beyond state law. (How you feel about yanking back home rule powers probably has a lot to do with how you feel about the substantive laws involved, since neither libertarians nor most other thinkers hold to a rigid always-or-never view of municipal home rule powers. Should towns in your state have the power to jail people for using alcohol or medical marijuana? Enact rent control? Ban the construction of any residence worth less than $1 million?)  

One part of HB2, then, eliminated towns’ and cities’ power to go beyond state law in some areas of employment and public accommodations law. But HB2 went a fateful step further by enacting into law the idea of some organized social conservatives that transgender persons should use the bathroom of their sex at birth, unless they succeed in jumping over the legal hurdles needed to get a changed certificate. There are all sorts of things wrong with that approach, and I said some of them in a Wall Street Journal letter last year

[The relevant section] of the bill imposes affirmative, uniform new duties of exclusion on North Carolina government entities such as schools, town halls, courthouses, state agencies and the state university system, taking away what had generally been local discretion. This not only will inflict needless burdens on a small and vulnerable sector of the public, but presumes to micromanage local governments and districts in an area where they had not been shown to be misusing their discretion. Whatever the merits of the rest of the bill, the provisions on state-furnished bathrooms are a good example of how legislation in haste from the top down can create new problems of its own.

The new HB142 compromise retreats, and rightly so, from this worst portion of HB2, but it does not retreat (or at least not very much) from the other elements, including those that are not so bad. By repealing HB2, it abandons the wretched aim of trying to prohibit transgender-friendly bathrooms. But it also takes away local governments’ power to mandate them in the private sector. It provides that “State agencies, boards, offices, departments, institutions, branches of government, including The University of North Carolina and the North Carolina Community College System, and political subdivisions of the State, including local boards of education, are preempted from regulation of access to multiple occupancy restrooms, showers, or changing facilities, except in accordance with an act of the General Assembly.” 

“Regulation of access to” is not an entirely clear phrase in this context. Clearly, cities like Charlotte need to go on carrying on the “regulation of access to” their own city-run facilities. The debate in the legislature today, according to several sources, emphasized sound local discretion – Charlotte can run bathrooms in municipal buildings the way it sees fit. 

The bill further pre-empts municipalities temporarily from enacting discrimination laws that go beyond the states’. “No local government in this State may enact or amend an ordinance regulating private employment practices or regulating public accommodations. That latter pre-emption expires in 2020.

The new compromise is being met with peals of outrage from some of the predictable ultras on both sides. But it looks to me like a more careful attempt to respect the legitimate rights of both sides than we’ve seen in this controversy up to now.