Suit alleges North Carolina law promotes discrimination against LGBT people


Gay and transgender rights supporters wasted little time in challenging a new North Carolina law, filing a lawsuit Monday that called it discriminatory and said it singles out LGBT people for “disfavored treatment.”

The law, which has also drawn strong opposition from major corporations, was signed last week by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. He has resolutely stood behind the law and later Monday blamed the outcry on a “well-coordinated campaign” trying to stain the state’s reputation.

The bill’s signing came after the Republican-controlled legislature completed a one-day special session in response to a broad ordinance in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, that allowed transgender people to use the restroom aligned with their gender identity. The new state law prevents cities and counties from extending protections to cover sexual orientation and gender identity at restaurants, hotels and stores.

Legal experts said the lawsuit contained some similarities to a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court case striking down Colorado’s constitutional amendment barring regulations protecting the rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

Yale Law School professor William Eskridge Jr., who teaches about gender, sexuality and the law, said the speed at which legislators acted compared to Charlotte’s more deliberative process will hurt the law’s chances of surviving scrutiny. But he said lawmakers may be in a better position with prohibiting local government regulations because the actual law doesn’t seem to focus upon sexual orientation.

“I think there is no question that this could wind up at the Supreme Court,” said Maxine Eichner, a professor at the University of North Carolina. With only eight Supreme Court justices for the near future, she added, “this is an issue of deep uncertainty.”

With the law, North Carolina also became the first state to require public school and university students to use only those bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

Advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights say state legislators demonized LGBT citizens with bogus claims about bathroom risks. Supporters say the new law protects all people from having to share bathrooms with people who make them feel unsafe.

The plaintiffs are two transgender people, a lesbian law professor, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and Equality North Carolina. Defendants include McCrory and the University of North Carolina system, where two of the plaintiffs work and a third attends college. The system’s 17 campuses also must comply with the law for employees and students.

Payton Grey McGarry, a student at UNC-Greensboro, and UNC-Chapel Hill employee Joaquin Carcano were born female and consider themselves male but have not changed their birth certificates. A transgender person could use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity if they changed the biological sex on their certificate, allowed after a sex change.

Carcano used a men’s restroom at work and McGarry used a men’s campus locker room before the law was passed. Now they’ll have to search for bathrooms in other buildings, businesses or elsewhere, the lawsuit says.

“I can put myself through the anxiety and stress of going to a female restroom and risk being physically or verbally or physically assaulted … or I can break the law. It’s an uncomfortable situation, either way,” McGarry said in a conference call.

The lawsuit also alleges the new law violates equal protection provisions and federal rules, which bar discrimination by the UNC system on the basis of sex, putting at risk billions of dollars in federal funds. Supporters of the law disagree.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger, both Republicans, said they’re confident a court will find the General Assembly acted properly while reining in local government powers.

The lawsuit takes “attempts to argue with a straight face that there is a previously undiscovered ‘right’ in the U.S. Constitution for men to use women’s bathrooms and locker rooms,” their news release said.

About a dozen corporations, from American Airlines to IBM, have expressed negative reactions to the legislation. Dozens of the roughly 20,000 retail and interior-design companies also have now said they won’t travel to next month’s High Point furniture market of manufacturers and wholesalers, the market’s governing body said Monday.

Speaking after a groundbreaking ceremony for a pharmaceutical plant in Raleigh’s suburbs, McCrory told reporters he has “not had one corporation tell me that they’re threatening to leave.” He didn’t address a question whether any companies have expressed support for the law.

“There’s a very well-coordinated campaign, national campaign, which is distorting the truth, which is frankly smearing our state in an inaccurate way, and which I’m working to correct,” McCrory said.