The latest HB 2 compromise bill – probably the most promising one ever in its potential to win Republican votes – is going nowhere. The sticking point? Democrats are opposed to the referendum portion of the bill, where non-discrimination ordinances have to be ratified by the voters before becoming effective. This provision was added to allay Republican fears about cities going rogue and passing whatever creative non-discrimination ordinances they can concoct.
The first argument from liberals against the referendum provision is that “we don’t put civil rights on the ballot.” In other words, the majority should never get to decide what the rights of a minority group are, ever – they shouldn’t even be up for debate.
That is all well and good – if we had a divine instruction manual that defined what those basic civil rights are. As it is, we lack such a manual. Hence, we must debate what civil rights are, and ultimately those rights become recognized as the result of a vote – cast by either the people as a whole, or a legislative body, or elites in black robes. There is no getting around it.
Opposition to the referendum component of HB 186 is based on fear – fear of democracy. There is a perception that having referendums would be akin to throwing the rights of transgender people to the wolves. But the “rights” that are the focus of such concern are not recognized by the state. From the point of view of a transgender activist, no setback is possible as a result of a referendum. Either rights and freedoms are extended, or there is no change. HB 186 at least allows the possibility of “progress.” The status quo does not.
Next, there is the argument that holding referendums on LGBT rights will lead to more bad headlines for the state. This is not a very convincing argument – government exists to safeguard the interests of the people, not to generate favorable headlines from elite media outlets. If a (statewide) Charlotte-style bathroom ordinance had been passed into law fifteen years ago, no doubt the media coverage would be generally unfavorable. But this would not have dissuaded the LGBT rights activists – nor should it have. So the “bad press coverage” argument fails, even if we accept the conclusion of their argument. Take the example of Houston, which rejected an anti-discrimination ordinance back in 2015. Yet, all things considered, Houston is doing very well economically, despite the scorn from the liberal press.
Finally, it is argued that, a favorable outcome or not, referendums would result in bitter, emotional campaigns that needlessly divide the state. Yes, the Amendment One campaign was divisive and emotionally charged. But there’s a reason for that: gay marriage is an emotionally charged issue. The same goes for transgender individuals in bathrooms. HB 186 takes the bathroom issue off the table. What is left? Mostly, anti-discrimination ordinances targeting transgender discrimination in employment and housing.
These are hardly emotionally charged issues, and we should hardly expect them to be the focus of an emotionally charged campaign. Maybe liberals see our cities as full of people who will erupt in white hot anger at the prospect of equal employment rights for transgenders. Maybe, but I doubt it. I have a little more faith in the people. And even if some of these referendums are voted down, a bitter, divisive campaign is unlikely. The bottom line: outside of gay marriage and bathrooms, people don’t care all that much.
Finally, this ignores the fact that our cities are filled to the brim with liberals who are more than happy to extend LGBT rights in their municipality. Without the bathroom hurdle (as was present in Houston), these measures should receive overwhelming support from the cosmopolitans. Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham, Chapel Hill, Asheville, Wilmington – all of these cities could ratify pro-LGBT ordinances in November 2018. That should generate glowing reports from the New York Times and the Washington Post. The coverage will be all the more favorable because it reflects the will of the people and not just the preferences of a majority of the City Council.
In the final analysis, the question is this: do you favor the potential of extending LGBT rights in some parts of the state, or do you prefer the status quo? There is no third option. A clean repeal of HB 2 is unrealistic – not when Republicans have a supermajority in both chambers of the legislature. Frankly, there is little need for them to float a compromise at all.
It appears that Roy Cooper and other progressives have made up their minds – that the status quo is preferable. In this, they and the Right are in full agreement.
John Wynne is the “conservative voice” at PoliticsNC, where he also provides polling analysis and commentary on legislative campaigns. When not writing about politics, he enjoys gardening and listening to opera. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.