RALEIGH — The window is small and the legislative strategy tricky, but GOP leaders say there’s still a chance to change the North Carolina law that sparked a clash over transgender rights on the national stage.
The state law, known as House Bill 2 and passed March 23, limited anti-discrimination rules that protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. In the portion of the bill that got the most attention nationwide, transgender men and women were directed to use public restrooms corresponding with the sex on their birth certificates.
The legislation has remained intact since then, despite national protests, the arrests of dozens of demonstrators at North Carolina’s Legislative Building, a federal lawsuit against the state, and strong words from officials, including U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, about the law as “state-sponsored discrimination.”
Hopes that North Carolina’s GOP-led General Assembly would completely erase the law have withered, but some adjustments are possible before lawmakers end their annual session — if Republican leaders can get the changes through without opening the entire bill for debate.
“We’re having discussions with a number of folks, but so far there’s nothing that’s been determined,” House Speaker Tim Moore said. “I think that we may look at some tweaks to the law, it’s certainly nothing that would make the Obama administration … happy.”
GOP lawmakers have floated the outlines of a proposal, and some are discussing potential changes privately. Changing the bathroom portion of the law is not on the table. The discussion instead centers on the provision that prevents workers from suing for employment discrimination in state court. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed House Bill 2 into law, wants that provision removed.
Any changes would probably show up in legislation negotiated privately by House and Senate Republicans, possibly placed in a “conference committee” report that is presented to both chambers for one up-or-down vote, with no amendments allowed. Or, it could be placed in a previously unrelated bill before the session ends.
That could allow Republicans to avoid debate and votes on Democratic proposals to repeal House Bill 2 altogether. GOP lawmakers in swing districts would prefer not to subject themselves to that kind of vote entering the fall campaign.
No one has promised that even minor alterations will be made. GOP legislators have said they want to adjourn before or just after July 4.
“There are still conversations that are taking place here and among folks about different things,” Senate leader Phil Berger said, “but I don’t know if there’s anything that’s going to happen anytime soon.”
But even that discussions are happening is surprising, given that GOP legislators last month sounded ready to wash their hands of the matter, leaving the law — originally passed in response to a nondiscrimination ordinance in Charlotte, the state’s largest city — to the courts to resolve.
Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat who represents Robeson County, said he has not seen proposed changes to the bill, but has heard that sections two and three, which have to do with the state superseding anti-discrimination policies passed by local governments and the right to bring discrimination suits in state court, are the most likely to see revisions if any are made.
“You’ve got a number of Republicans that are ready to vote ‘no, let it stay as it is,’ and then you’ve got Democrats who are saying nothing but a total repeal,” he said.
Although time is running out on the current session, Pierce said Republicans could still move a revised House Bill 2 quickly — the original bill passed in 24 hours.
Rep. Ken Waddell said he has also heard rumblings of a “fixed” version of the bill amending all provisions except rules on bathroom usage. Waddell said he expects that version to be voted on this session.
Democratic Rep. Darren Jackson of Raleigh said he’s seen the outlines of a proposal floated by Republican colleagues. He said it would, among other things, reinstate the right of workers to sue over employment discrimination in state court through a state law. It also would create tougher penalties for people who commit sexual assaults in bathrooms, to bolster law supporters’ arguments that the measure is meant to protect children. But the restrictions on LGBT non-discrimination rules and on restroom use by transgender people wouldn’t go away.
Jackson and others say nothing short of repeal is good enough.
“It’s just another bad bill, it’s just another discriminatory measure,” Democratic Rep. Chris Sgro, the executive director of the gay rights group Equality North Carolina, said Tuesday. He was appointed in April to fill out the term of a legislator who died. “If leadership really wants to do something, they will repeal House Bill 2.”
Other Republicans have said they would consider allowing transgender people who have undergone sex reassignment surgery but were born in a state that doesn’t allow a sex change on birth certificates to receive an exception in the law by getting another document.
“There would be a couple tweaks that I think most of the (Republican) caucus folks would like,” said House Majority Leader Mike Hager, but added he and others see no need to revisit the nondiscrimination restrictions and the restroom provisions. “I think the caucus is pretty well solid on that.”
McCrory wants lawmakers to restore the ability of workers to sue for discrimination. He doesn’t have a line-item veto.
“My goal is to reverse the one part that I think is wrong,” McCrory told reporters late last week. “That needs to be changed and I continue to push for that.”
After the law passed, several businesses and events left or threatened to leave the state. Among them, the NBA has been weighing whether to keep the 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte. Commissioner Adam Silver said this month that the league would need to see definitive progress toward changing the law by the end of summer to ensure the event remains in the city.
Managing Editor Sarah Willets and staff writer Bob Shiles contributed to this report.