Reprinted with permission from The Charlotte Observer

Mecklenburg County commissioners unanimously approved Tuesday an expansion to the county’s nondiscrimination ordinance to protect LGBTQ people and people who wear natural hair styles — a major development in a years-long battle over gay and transgender rights in North Carolina.

The ordinance prohibits discrimination for those newly protected groups at employers of every size. In addition, it prohibits discrimination in a wide range of public settings.

With the vote, Mecklenburg County is on track to become the 13th local government to expand its local nondiscrimination ordinance this year. Commissioners will need to take another final vote before the expanded ordinance becomes law.

The wave of support for the expansions comes five years after a thorny political battle between Charlotte and the state legislature.

“It’s an exciting night,” Ginger Walker, the president of LGBTQ Democrats of North Carolina, told commissioners on October 5. “It is a long time coming.”

In 2016, responding to a nondiscrimination expansion in Charlotte, the state legislature passed House Bill 2, widely known as the “Bathroom Bill.” It sought to prevent transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice.

Among other things, that law also prevented local governments from expanding their nondiscrimination ordinances. Amid national outcry, though, the state repealed that law and replaced it with House Bill 142. That law also prevented local governments from passing nondiscrimination ordinances, but that provision expired in December.

Since then, a dozen local governments, including Charlotte, have passed protections of their own. Neither Charlotte’s nor Mecklenburg’s protections regulate the use of bathrooms.

“Tonight’s discussion reaffirms the importance of LGTBQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, in Mecklenburg County and across the state,” Kendra R. Johnson, Executive Director of Equality North Carolina, said in a statement. “Measures like these will make Mecklenburg County a better place, especially for people with multiple layers of marginalization. We applaud the Commissioners for taking this action, and we encourage them to pass this NDO swiftly.”

The Scope of Mecklenburg’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance

Commissioners weighed two proposals on Tuesday. Both sought to add job protections for LGBTQ people and people who wear their hair in natural styles.

But the primary difference between them was the size of businesses that the ordinance would apply to. One version would only have applied to businesses with fewer than 15 employees, while the one that was approved would apply to businesses of all sizes.

Advocates have praised the expanded ordinances as a major step forward in the battle for equality in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. In a letter urging commissioners to pass the expansion on Tuesday, Equality NC and the Campaign for Southern Equality wrote that it “will create a community where all people can thrive.”

Charlotte’s ordinance, which the City Council which the city council passed unanimously in August, applies to employers of all sizes. City Attorney Patrick Baker expressed concern at the time that applying the ordinance to all business could overwhelm the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee, which would hear complaints and handle enforcement.

Advocates pushed back before Tuesday’s vote, saying in a letter that only protecting employees at small businesses would create “a confusing, unnecessary patchwork … where Charlotte residents are afforded protections at all employers, while Mecklenburg County’s jurisdictions limit who is protected.”

Cameron Pruette, who spoke to commissioners during Tuesday’s meeting, said the federal commission that handles workplace discrimination cases only takes a limited number of complaints every year. If the commission does not take a case, discriminated workers are forced to hire attorneys if they hope to get justice.

“Discrimination should not require you to fund yourself to protect yourself,” he said.

All 12 local governments that have expanded their NDOs this year have not limited protections to employees at small businesses, Pruette said.

“I’m only asking you to vote for as much protections as Republicans in Buncombe County, as Republicans in Charlotte did, because we need it,” he said.

Commissioner Pat Cotham said the time for action on nondiscrimination is overdue. She added that she believed the state legislature “is at a different moment in time,” and that it’s not likely there will be legislative pushback, as there was with HB2.

“This is about dignity,” Cotham said. “But the more that I thought about it, you don’t have dignity if you don’t have strength.”

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