Opinion: So It Passed. Now What?
The state will shoot this down. That won't matter in the long run
If you’re thrilled that the Charlotte City Council added LGBT protections to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance last night, the first and most dismaying thing to absorb today is that the state of North Carolina has myriad ways of nullifying the changes—and there’s nothing, at least legally, the city could do about it.
Like most states, North Carolina doesn’t extend “home rule” to local governments, which means cities and counties are technically subdivisions of the state government and subject to state authority. (We’re often referred to as a “Dillon’s Rule state,” which isn’t entirely accurate, but the distinction doesn’t matter in this case.) Governor Pat McCrory and, today, House Speaker Tim Moore have vowed to introduce legislation to overturn the council vote—either once the General Assembly reconvenes in April or, conceivably, even before—and they have options aplenty.
The legislature could resurrect language from a bill last year that would prohibit cities and counties from regulating access to public accommodations. It could exercise the Indiana option of allowing businesses to refuse service to customers on religious grounds. (Given the national backlash, this one’s unlikely.) It could also go the Texas route: Put the matter up to a citywide vote, which shut down a similar ordinance last year in Houston. There’s no provision in the law for such a referendum, but the General Assembly could easily create one.
Or they could choose something else entirely. The upshot is that there’s little chance the ordinance changes will hold up. Someone could decide to sue, of course. But short of amending the state constitution, North Carolina’s authority will continue to supersede Charlotte’s.
Which leaves this city … where, exactly?
If you attended last night’s meeting, or tuned in, you saw and heard a virtual repeat of last year’s public forum on the changes. Some of it was dismaying. After more than four hours in which opponents of the changes outnumbered and out-shouted their counterparts, council member Claire Fallon—who cast one of the four nay votes—proclaims that “we never heard from the other side”? Aren’t these people who drove down from Cabarrus County out of their jurisdiction? Did that one lady really appeal to the wishes of the majority in one breath and use the next to announce, “We do the right thing, not the popular thing”? I hung on until the guy in the king costume did his routine. Then I had to go. That was enough voice-of-the-people for one night.
You could argue that the city unnecessarily stepped on a hornet’s nest by even bringing this up for a vote, and that the near-inevitable legislative action means it was all a big waste of time and energy. I don’t think so. Regardless of what the legislature does, Charlotte’s rejection of discrimination against LGBT people is on record for all to see. It’s the way the culture at large is going, and the nation, and, lest we forget, big business. The city can handle animus from the General Assembly and the right-wing fringe of the faith community as long as it doesn’t run afoul of the institutions it really answers to: employers.