Reprinted with permission from The Charlotte Observer

Mecklenburg commissioners will hear public comment and decide between two proposals to expand the county’s nondiscrimination ordinance on Tuesday.

One proposal would add job protections at small businesses for LGBTQ+ employees and workers that wear their hair naturally. The other would apply expanded nondiscrimination law to businesses of all sizes.An amended ordinance would also prohibit discrimination in a wide range of public places countywide.

The vote has been a long time coming, though it only became possible last December.

Since a key part of North Carolina’s replacement law to HB2 expired last year, many municipalities have moved to add legal protections, both for LGBTQ+ people and people who wear their hair naturally.

Initially, state law precluded local governments from expanding nondiscrimination protections. That came in 2016 as a reaction to Charlotte City Council’s attempt to pass protections for transgender people. State law still prohibits municipalities from regulating bathroom use (the central focus of HB2) but local governments may add other anti-discrimination measures.

After months of petitioning and organizing by advocates, Charlotte City Council expanded in August its nondiscrimination ordinance (NDO) to include LGBTQ+ protections. Most of the new law went into effect Oct. 1, while employment provisions will go into effect on Jan. 1.

The city’s NDO does not address public bathrooms, provides compliance exemptions for religious organizations and applies to businesses of all sizes.

There are two different ordinances on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners agenda for Tuesday night. One is backed by Commissioner Leigh Altman.

The biggest difference between the two is the provision that applies to employers. Altman’s draft would include businesses of all sizes — not just ones with less than 15 employees.

Employment discrimination is already outlawed on the state and federal level for businesses with 15 or more workers, but natural hair is not included as a protected characteristic. And there’s been uncertainty in the courts over whether laws against sex discrimination protect transgender people.

“I think we will have an interesting conversation,” Altman said. “A lot of members of the LGBTQ community want full coverage and obviously with the draft I’ve provided, I agree.”

Controversy over applying the city of Charlotte’sexpanded nondiscrimination ordinance to all businesses unfolded on the City Council in the summer. City attorney Patrick Baker was concerned about the city’s ability to handle a flood of discrimination complaints from large Charlotte-based employers and encouraged the NDO’s application to businesses with 14 or fewer workers.

The city ordinance as passed says workers with state or federal legal protections may be required to first take employment discrimination claims through the courts, leaving the local complaint process to fill in gaps.

Local and statewide LGBTQ+ advocates published a letter Monday that took issue with that point, too. They urged the commissioners to strengthen the county’s proposed ordinance by expanding its enforcement to businesses of all sizes.

“The current draft creates a confusing, unnecessary patchwork for the Community Relations Committee, where Charlotte residents are afforded protections at all employers, while Mecklenburg County’s jurisdictions limit who is protected,” the letter reads. “We urge Mecklenburg County Commissioners to amend the ordinance to address this important gap.”

Both ordinances, similar to the city’s ordinance, refer complaints and enforcement to the Community Relations Committee.

If adopted by the commissioners, Mecklenburg would be the thirteenth local government to pass anLGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance in North Carolina in 2021, according to Equality NC and the Campaign for Southern Equality.

Mecklenburg commissioners were the first in the local area to adopt a protective policy for LGBTQ+ people in February, but the resolution was a statement of support — not a binding law.

This story was originally published October 4, 2021 4:04 PM.

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