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North Carolina lawmakers gather to consider repealing 'bathroom bill'

North Carolina legislators gathered Wednesday for a special session to consider repealing the "bathroom bill" they passed this year, pushing the state into the center of a national debate about transgender rights.

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Opponents of North Carolina's HB2 law limiting bathroom access for transgender people protest in the gallery above the state's House of Representatives chamber as the legislature considers repealing the controversial law in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S. on December 21, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

North Carolina legislators gathered Wednesday for a special session to consider repealing the "bathroom bill" they passed this year, pushing the state into the center of a national debate about transgender rights.

However, it was not immediately clear whether the lawmakers would fully abandon the measure, which cost the state millions of dollars in lost tourism revenue, prompted the NBA and the NCAA to move games, and factored heavily into a high-profile gubernatorial race.

The legislation, also known as House Bill 2 or H.B. 2, prohibits transgender people from using bathrooms that don't match the gender on their birth certificates, and it also reversed local ordinances expanding protections for LGBT people.

A measure introduced on Wednesday would repeal that bill while also imposing restrictions on local governments, caveats that quickly angered the rights groups that have opposed H.B. 2.

Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who this month conceded to Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, called the special session Monday, hours after Charlotte city officials said they would repeal a nondiscrimination ordinance the city passed in February. State lawmakers hastily introduced H.B. 2 the following month, and McCrory quickly signed the bill, setting off a firestorm.

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McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, has long criticized the city's measure as "government overreach" and said H.B. 2 was needed to combat that ordinance and protect women. Opponents of the bathroom bill, a group that includes the Justice Department, decried it as discriminatory, and big businesses and sports leagues echoed these concerns, halting planned expansions and relocating numerous games.

When lawmakers convened Wednesday morning, there was debate about whether the session should even be held before the North Carolina House went into a recess for several hours. The special session was called at a time of acute acrimony in North Carolina, as Republican lawmakers recently passed controversial legislation aimed at stripping power from Cooper, who in turn has threatened a lawsuit over the measures.

On Wednesday afternoon, the top Republican in the state Senate introduced a bill that would repeal the bathroom bill. However, the bill introduced by Sen. Phil Berger, the senate president pro tempore, would also impose a "six-month cooling-off period," during which local governments would not be able to enact ordinances relating to employment or public restrooms.

Rights groups that have long criticized the bill had said this week that they were disappointed to see Charlotte have to abandon its ordinance, even as they were pleased that H.B. 2 could face a repeal. These same groups said Wednesday that they would accept only a full and complete repeal rather than one including any caveats.

The half-measure proposed Wednesday not satisfy these gay and transgender rights groups, who pledged to continue to fight a state law that they had criticized as one of the most discriminatory in the nation.

"It is unacceptable. It's a gimmick. It's H.B. 2.0," said Mara Keisling, president of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "It's not okay and any legislature that would do that wouldn't really be doing that for only six months."

The head of the Human Rights Campaign echoed this sentiment on Twitter, saying that Berger's bill "doubles-down on discrimination."

A spokesman for Cooper did not respond to messages seeking comment about the proposed legislation.

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Berger's bill was introduced hours after the Charlotte City Council had held an emergency meeting to repeal its own ordinance in full, a move meant to spur state lawmakers into action.

A spokeswoman for the city said that the repeal vote Monday had affected only the part of the ordinance dealing with public accommodations, such as bathrooms, which council members thought would "sufficiently [fulfill] the requests of the general assembly" and lead to H.B. 2's repeal.

But some state Republicans were critical of Charlotte for its partial repeal. Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, posted a statement on Facebook saying that Cooper and the Charlotte City Council "lied to the public about a full repeal," and his group went on to call this a "dishonest, disgraceful shame."

Charlotte Mayor Roberts pushed back against the party's statement, saying in an email to The Washington Post that the state GOP "is incorrect and they need to stop playing politics with people's lives."

The Charlotte City Council voted Wednesday morning to withdraw the remainder of the city's ordinance "to ensure the repeal of [H.B. 2] would not be jeopardized in any way," the city said in a statement.

The socially conservative North Carolina Family Policy Council had urged members Tuesday to call lawmakers to demand that they vote no on a repeal. Dan Forest, the state's Republican lieutenant governor, said that even if the bill is repealed, "we will fight this battle all over again with another city or county."

"The names will change, but the national groups who are pushing this agenda will not stop until their social engineering is accomplished," Forest, a supporter of H.B. 2, said in a statement Wednesday morning.

On the other side, a newspaper in the liberal city of Asheville argued that the compromise was a losing proposition for gay and transgender people - as well as the state. "Even if everything goes as planned, the damage done to the state's reputation is a bell that cannot be unrung," the Asheville Citizen-Times editorial board wrote Tuesday. "Further, Charlotte's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents are back where they were a year ago, without the protections they deserve."

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The move to repeal the law comes after months of acrimony over the law, which became a national flash point in the battle over transgender rights. That battle has lately centered on whether nondiscrimination protections should be explicitly extended to transgender people, and whether they have the right to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

Opponents of expanded transgender rights say that allowing explicit protections, particularly in the public sphere, not only breaks with long-standing social mores when it comes to gender and bathrooms but could open the door to sexual predators gaining access to women's restrooms.

Rights groups, however, contend that such arguments are rooted in offensive stereotypes and do not reflect the reality of most transgender people, who have already been quietly using their preferred bathrooms without incident.

After the bathroom bill was signed, musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Ringo Starr canceled shows in North Carolina, while Cirque de Soleil scrapped several performances in the state.

The NBA, which has a franchise in Charlotte, moved this season's All-Star Game from that city because of "the climate created by" H.B. 2. The NCAA took even more extensive action, relocating the seven championship games set to take place in North Carolina during this season, including two rounds of the lucrative men's Division I basketball tournament.

Big businesses, including Google and Apple, spoke out against the law. PayPal, a California-based online payment firm, and Deutsche Bank, a German financial giant, called off planned expansions in North Carolina. These expansions would have brought a combined 650 jobs to North Carolina and been worth millions of dollars to the state, officials said.

 

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