World / Social Issues

North Carolina governor offers 'bathroom bill' compromise as groups press Trump to uphold LGBT rights

AP, Reuters

North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper proposed Tuesday what he called a compromise to repeal the state’s so-called bathroom bill, saying a new measure is designed to allay fears by some over public bathroom safety.

But a powerful leader in the Republican-controlled General Assembly dismissed it, signaling that any agreement between the governor and GOP lawmakers is still distant. Even a close Cooper ally in the gay rights movement said he didn’t support the governor’s idea, calling the proposal a distraction from a repeal of what’s known as House Bill 2.

The law approved last March by GOP lawmakers and then-Gov. Pat McCrory triggered backlash from businesses and LGBT advocates who say it’s discriminatory because it requires transgender people to use restrooms in public buildings that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates. It also excludes sexual orientation and gender identity from local and statewide antidiscrimination protections. A federal trial to decide HB2 is scheduled to begin later this summer.

Cooper’s proposal comes as New Orleans welcomes the NBA All-Star game this weekend. The city of Charlotte was supposed to host the multimillion-dollar event, but the NBA pulled out after the law was passed. The NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference also moved several sporting events and businesses such as PayPal decided not to expand in North Carolina.

“It will bring back the NCAA, it will bring back the ACC, the NBA and it will bring back jobs,” Cooper said.

The proposal does away with House Bill 2 and increases penalties for crimes in public bathrooms, the governor said at a news conference with the top Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. It would also tell local governments seeking ordinances covering sexual orientation and gender identity to give legislators 30 days’ notice before doing so.

Lawmakers passed HB2 weeks after the Charlotte City Council voted to expand a local ordinance protecting people based on sexual orientation and gender identity at hotels, restaurants and other public buildings.

HB2 supporters have argued letting people choose public bathrooms based on gender identity can be used as a pretense by sexual predators. The U.S. Justice Department and HB2 critics have said the threat is practically nonexistent.

Senate leader Phil Berger said the stronger punishments for crimes in bathrooms aren’t enough.

“What is the governor’s position on whether or not men should be allowed to share restrooms, lockers and showers with women and girls?” Berger told reporters. “I don’t see this as a compromise. I don’t see this as anything different that what he’s been saying all along.”

Cooper’s proposal represents a change in tactics by the new governor, who has been seeking a repeal-only bill. Cooper said HB2 “doesn’t do anything to protect anybody.” His proposal appeared designed to pull in more votes from Republicans wavering on keeping the law.

“Regardless of whether I believe House Bill 2 addresses that problem in any way, I want to say this: I hear you and I have a proposal that specifically addresses your concerns,” the governor said.

In December, an apparent deal between Cooper — then the governor-elect — and the legislature to repeal HB2 collapsed. Interest picked up in recent days after a statewide sports development association warned legislators in a letter that action must be taken very soon or the state would be disqualified from hosting NCAA events for the next five years.

Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, said the 30-day waiting period for local governments was unnecessary, saying Charlotte leaders deliberated publicly for a long time on their ordinance. And new penalties aren’t needed because LGBT people are not a public safety risk, he said.

“I don’t support the proposal. I think that what we need to do is be squarely focused on the repeal of HB2,” Sgro told reporters. “Every other piece of this conversation is a distraction.”

Alarmed at the U.S. Justice Department’s recent retreat from a full defense of transgender rights, four advocacy groups have urged the Trump administration to maintain Obama era guidance to public schools on protecting transgender students.

Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights sent a letter dated Monday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, urging them to preserve guidance sent to public schools last year.

That guidance urged schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity and issued other directives on bullying and harassment.

“Each of these guidance documents is based on years of careful research to accurately reflect a substantial body of case law and proven best practices from schools across the country,” the letter said.

President Donald Trump has spoken in favor of LGBT rights and in January the White House vowed to defend LGBT workplace protections issued under former President Barack Obama.

But LGBT advocates say Sessions and DeVos are more conservative and question their commitment to transgender rights. Asked to comment, a Justice Department spokesman would only say the department received the letter and will review it.

Texas filed a lawsuit seeking to block the Obama guidance and was joined by 12 other states. They said the federal government overreached in trying to force social policy on them and threatening to cut off federal funds to states that failed to comply.

A U.S. district judge sided with the states and blocked the directives. The Justice and Education departments under Obama appealed.

On Friday, shortly after Sessions was sworn in, the Justice Department withdrew a motion in defense of the guidance, acceding to the lower court judge’s injunction to block it nationwide.

“It’s really upsetting to see that the first thing they chose to do, late on a Friday night, was take a step back from fighting to defend students from harm,” said one of the signatories, Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, a group advocating for LGBT students.

The letter was also signed by the leaders of the National Center for Transgender Equality, Human Rights Campaign and the National Women’s Law Center.

Major issues of how schools must deal with transgender students could be settled in a case due to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in March.

The case pits a Virginia school district against a transgender boy fighting for his right to use the boys’ room at his high school.