In a sweeping reversal, North Carolina lawmakers voted Thursday to repeal and replace a costly and highly criticized law that restricts which public restrooms transgender people can use, backing down in the face of mounting economic pressure.
The measure now heads to the Democratic governor, who is expected to sign it despite intense opposition from gay rights groups.
Under an agreement announced late Wednesday by top Republican and Democratic leaders in the state and formally approved hours later after a charged debate, lawmakers repealed the so-called “bathroom bill” and, in its place, imposed a three-year ban on local governments enacting nondiscrimination ordinances.
The move capped off more than a year of acrimony over the bathroom law, also called House Bill 2 (or “H.B. 2”), which was best known for its provisions that require people to use public restrooms that match the sex on their birth certificates rather than their gender identities. But H.B. 2 also had other, more far-reaching provisions, limiting some minimum-wage standards and reversing local ordinances that had expanded protections for LGBT people.
Since the law was signed, North Carolina has watched as companies abandoned plans to expand in the state, entertainers canceled shows and sports leagues pulled some games and vowed to keep out more. The most recent such threat, coming from the NCAA, gave lawmakers until Thursday to change the law if North Carolina wants to host any college sports championships through 2022, and that ultimatum loomed large over the debate Thursday, as some legislators criticized the collegiate association and argued against abiding by its timetable.
It was not clear if the move on Thursday would placate the NCAA, which did not respond to a request for comment about the new bill.
The agreement between North Carolina’s top Republican lawmakers, who had long supported H.B. 2, and the state’s Democratic governor, who has been a staunch opponent of the measure, came after other efforts to repeal it had fallen short, most recently during a marathon hearing in December. Gay rights organizations and civil liberties groups quickly pilloried the new agreement, saying the compromise fell short and promising political punishment for anyone who supported it.
“This is not a repeal of H.B. 2,” James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Project, said in a statement after the vote. “Instead, they’re reinforcing the worst aspects of the law. North Carolina lawmakers should be ashamed of this backroom deal that continues to play politics with the lives of LGBT North Carolinians.”
This measure now heads to Gov. Roy Cooper (D), who had endorsed the agreement.
“It’s not a perfect deal, but it repeals House Bill 2 and begins to repair our reputation,” Cooper, a first-term governor who won a narrow election last November in which H.B. 2 played an outsize role, said in a statement late Wednesday. Exit polls had showed that two-thirds of voters in his election opposed the bathroom law, and Cooper won the support of most of those voters.
The passage represented a major victory for Cooper and a notable moment of bipartisanship in a state that has recently seen fractious political disputes. Cooper has been feuding with GOP lawmakers since his victory, with Republicans seeking to remove some of his powers in office, and this back and forth continued through attempts to negotiate a deal repealing H.B. 2.
Despite Cooper’s backing, Democrats expressed concerns with the repeal measure, with some sounding uneasy about supporting it and others outright refusing to back the bill.
“We would rather suffer H.B. 2 than to have this body one more time deny us the full and unfettered protection of the law,” Democratic Rep. Deb Butler, one of two openly LGBT lawmakers, declared during the House’s debate.
Republican lawmakers who backed the repeal insisted it was needed to help the state move on to other things. Rep. Scott Stone (R) said the fact both the right and the left dislike this bill means “it is a true compromise.” Speaking during the floor debate, Stone added, “The time has come for us to get out from under the national spotlight for negative things.”
According to the text of the bill, which is half a page long, lawmakers also approved a measure stating that “no local government in this state may enact or amend an ordinance regulating private employment practices or regulating public accommodations.” Local school boards and government agencies would be prevented from regulating “multiple occupancy bathrooms, showers or changing facilities,” with that left up to state legislators.
State Senate Leader Phil Berger (R) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R), who released the bill’s text and backed it, also said it would implement until December 2020 “a temporary moratorium” on nondiscrimination ordinances like the one Charlotte passed last year, which prompted state lawmakers to pass the bathroom bill.
“Compromise requires give and take from all sides, and we are pleased this proposal fully protects bathroom safety and privacy,” Berger and Moore said in a joint statement.
After the bill was passed by lawmakers, Moore reiterated that he felt it “strengthens privacy protections statewide by providing a complete preemption of local governments regulating bathrooms, changing rooms and showers so that women and children are protected across the state.”
Gay rights groups said the new bill’s other elements, including the prohibition on local nondiscrimination ordinances, meant that it fell short of a full repeal.
“This proposal is a train wreck that would double down on anti-LGBTQ discrimination,” Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, said in a statement before the vote.
Conservative groups also offered some criticism of the bill Thursday, with Family Research Council President Tony Perkins saying in a statement that “it does signal that elected officials are ultimately willing to surrender to the courts and the NCAA on matters of safety and public policy.”
The bill passed through a Senate committee Thursday morning on a voice vote and then through the full Senate not long after on a vote of 32 to 16. It then moved to the state’s House of Representatives, where lawmakers spent 90 minutes in a sometimes-charged debate that heard unhappy voices from both sides before it was approved by a vote of 70 to 48.
Conservative lawmakers on Thursday first led an ultimately doomed charge to delay considering the bill until next week, an attempt to rebuke the NCAA, which had already relocated several events planned for North Carolina this year and was threatening to keep out many more.
“I refuse to bow to the NCAA’s dictates and demands,” Rep. Beverly G. Boswell, a Republican lawmaker, declared during the debate over whether to delay the vote.
Rep. Chuck McGrady (R), who has been calling for the state to repeal the bill, described the three-year ban on local governments from enacting their own nondiscrimination ordinances as a necessary “cooling-off period.” But when asked Thursday whether the moratorium just delays this bathroom fight for another day, McGrady replied: “Future legislatures can always change the law.”
State lawmakers have previously flirted with repealing H.B. 2, most notably last December when they held a prolonged special session specifically for that purpose. That session was called after Charlotte abandoned its nondiscrimination ordinance, which had expanded new protections to gay, lesbian and transgender people. Charlotte’s decision to scrap those protections was aimed specifically at clearing the path for state legislators to then repeal H.B. 2, after Republicans said that city’s ordinance was the reason the statewide law was needed.
After a brutal session in which Republicans feuded over whether to fully or partially repeal the bill and Democrats accused them of abandoning their pledge to eliminate the measure entirely, the legislators wound up leaving the bill in place. During that debate, Democrats rejected a version that would have included a six-month moratorium on cities passing nondiscrimination ordinances to protect gay and transgender people, a period that has been significantly extended in the new bill.
Possible repeal efforts gained new steam this week in the face of the NCAA’s deadline. The potential loss of all of those collegiate events would add to the already sizable damage North Carolina has faced since enacting the bathroom bill. Companies such as PayPal and Deutsche Bank have abandoned expansions in the state, the NBA and the NCAA already have moved marquee events elsewhere, and entertainers have canceled concerts and other shows.
These moves have taken a toll: A new estimate from the Associated Press this week said that over a 12-year period following enactment of the law, H.B. 2 would cost the state at least $3.7 billion due to these losses.
The Human Rights Campaign said that the deal approved Thursday “doubles down on discrimination” and called it unacceptable after the details were released. In a statement early Thursday, Chad Griffin, the group’s president, said the agreement proposed by lawmakers “would ensure North Carolina remains the worst state in the nation for LGBTQ people.”
Griffin also vowed that there would be political repercussions for lawmakers backing the agreement:
Any ally of the LGBTQ community cannot support this new version of #HB2. There will be political consequences for those who do, Dem and Rep.
— Chad Griffin (@ChadHGriffin) March 30, 2017
Kirk Ross in Raleigh contributed to this report.
This story, first published at 12:33 a.m., has been updated.