GBT rights trial could take place close to Election Day

Law overrules local antidiscrimination ordinances

By Jonathan Drew and Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Dueling lawsuits over a North Carolina law limiting protections for LGBT people will likely go to trial around Election Day, putting the divisive issue in the spotlight as voters prepare to cast ballots in the closely watched governor's race.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder issued an order last week saying he expected to try the cases involving a law known as House Bill 2 in late October or early November 2016, which is when lawyers told him they would be ready.

The judge scheduled an Aug. 1 hearing on the American Civil Liberties Union's request for an injunction blocking a key provision of the law that requires transgender people to use restrooms in many public buildings that are consistent with the sex on their birth certificate.

The judge asked lawyers to discuss ways to eliminate certain redundant parts of the cases with an eye toward consolidating them. Two lawsuits challenging the law and two defending it are assigned to Schroeder, who remarked that he wants to avoid "multiple, piecemeal considerations of the overlapping and closely-related issues." A fifth case over the law is pending before a judge in a different court.

Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, said it appears that Schroeder and the lawyers want a swift resolution, but there could be still be delays.

"It seems like everybody's trying to deal in good faith and get things moving," he said. "But you never know. There can be bumps, and all kinds of things can happen."

The ACLU and Lambda Legal, which challenged the law on behalf of transgender clients, issued a statement saying they're eager to have their day in court.

"Every day that House Bill 2 remains on the books, transgender North Carolinians suffer irreparable harm at work, in school, and in other public places, simply because they want to use public facilities safely just like everyone," the groups said.

The law enacted in March also excludes sexual orientation and gender identity from antidiscrimination protections related to the workplace, hotels and restaurants; and overrules local antidiscrimination ordinances.

It has drawn high-profile supporters and critics. Nearly two dozen other states are fighting President Barack Obama's administration, which has issued guidelines urging schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity. A draft this week of the platform for the Republican National Convention offers a "salute" to the states.

Meanwhile, 68 companies signed an amicus brief recently supporting challenges to the law. The NBA has been deciding whether to remove the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, and league commissioner Adam Silver said this week he's disappointed with a lack of progress on changing the law.

During the legislative session that ended this month, lawmakers restored the ability of workers to use state law to sue over employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion and other factors - but left gender identity and sexual orientation unprotected.

Alfredo Rodriguez, a Republican political consultant in Charlotte, said he doubts GOP candidates will be hurt in November because legislative leaders defending the law "are reflecting the sentiment of voters across the state."

In an interview he gave before Schroeder issued his order, Rodriguez also argued that voters care more about other issues.

"The attention span that the public has on H.B. 2 is diminishing with every passing day," he said.

But Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University, said the protracted legal fight could help mobilize Democrats and unaffiliated voters who lean left.

"The average voter is going to think this seems messy," he said. "The more this is in the courts, the more it's a question about what's going to happen going forward, the worse people feel about their state government in general, regardless of party. In an era where people aren't trusting government very much, this debate doesn't help."

Even before the trials were scheduled so close to the elections, H.B. 2 was expected to influence turnout in the race between Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who supports the law, and Democratic state Attorney General Roy Cooper, who opposes it.

Jesse Womble, a 21-year-old political science major at North Carolina State University, said he previously supported McCrory but is having second thoughts because of issues including House Bill 2.

"I'm a registered Republican, but I'm disappointed in how McCrory and state legislators rushed to make that decision, so that definitely hurt my opinion of him," Womble said Wednesday. "I see how it's hurting the economy in North Carolina."

Aaron Whittier, a 37-year-old software engineer and unaffiliated voter from Durham, said the debate is likely to influence whether he chooses McCrory or Cooper.

"It is kind of a reflection on their social and moral stances. I'm very liberal on that front," he said. "I very much vote against discrimination."

Published: Mon, Jul 18, 2016