Effects of 'Bathroom Bill' Linger in North Carolina, Lawsuit Claims

Image: Unisex signs hang outside bathrooms at Toast Paninoteca in Durham, North Carolina.
Unisex signs hang outside bathrooms at Toast Paninoteca on May 10, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.Sara D. Davis / Getty Images
/ Source: Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. — The law that replaced North Carolina's notorious "bathroom bill" sports a new look but maintains LGBTQ discrimination and prevents transgender people from using restrooms matching their gender identity, according to a lawsuit Friday.

The lawsuit renews a high-profile legal battle that has thrust North Carolina into the center of the national debate over LGBTQ rights. The state took the "bathroom bill" off the books in late March after a yearlong backlash that hurt North Carolina's reputation and caused businesses and sports leagues to back out of lucrative events and projects.

Madeline Goss is seen in Raleigh, NC., Friday, July 21, 2017, shortly after announcing a new lawsuit over LGBT rights. Madeline Goss is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.Jonathan Drew / AP

But lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal said the replacement law, known as H.B. 142, continues the harms of its predecessor.

"Legislators were forced to rewrite the law," ACLU lawyer Chris Brook told reporters Friday. "But make no mistake ... H.B. 142 is a wolf in sheep's clothing crafted to keep discrimination intact but sporting a new look."

The compromise earlier this year between Republican legislative leaders and Democrats led by Gov. Roy Cooper eliminated the "bathroom bill" requirement that transgender people use restrooms in many public buildings corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates.

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But the new law makes clear that that only the General Assembly — not local government or school officials — can make rules for public restrooms from now on. Local governments are also prohibited from enacting new nondiscrimination ordinances for workplaces, hotels and restaurants until December 2020.

"The vacuum purposefully created by H.B. 142 in effect maintains the ban of [the previous law] and encourages discrimination by both government and private entities and individuals," the lawsuit said. "The law offers no guidance to anyone except by implication and makes it impossible for a reasonable person who is transgender to know which restroom they can legally use."

A unisex sign and the "We Are Not This" slogan are outside a bathroom at Bull McCabes Irish Pub on May 10, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.Sara D. Davis / Getty Images

The ambiguity is compounded by statements from Republican lawmakers that the new law would meet the same goals as the "bathroom bill," according to the lawsuit. It cites a statement from House Speaker Tim Moore that the replacement law ensures that "persons of the opposite sex cannot go into designated multi-occupancy restrooms" and could face criminal trespassing charges.

A spokesman for Moore declined comment Friday.

The lawsuit argues that the law violates constitutional due process and equal protection rights, as well as federal laws against discrimination in workplaces and schools. The filing is a revamped version of an existing lawsuit that challenged the original "bathroom bill" in federal court. Most of the same parties remain from the previous complaint, with the addition of two new plaintiffs. Cooper is also named as a defendant.

Related: ACLU Sues Federal Government for Religious Liberty Documents

A spokesman for Cooper, Ford Porter, said in an email Friday: "The governor's ultimate goal is statewide LGBT protections, and he is going to continue working toward that."

Since H.B. 142 went into effect earlier this year, sports leagues including the NBA, ACC and NCAA have said they would hold championship events in North Carolina again. The announcements of large business projects such as a 1,200-job expansion by Credit Suisse are a further indication that the state is repairing its image.

But the pain continues for transgender residents across the state, the plaintiffs said. For example, 28-year-old transgender man Joaquín Carcaño said he's been unable to get an answer from his employer, the University of North Carolina, on which restrooms he's permitted to use.

"We the trans community were used as bargaining chips in order to fix a damaged reputation," Carcano said Friday, adding that the fight for LGBTQ rights didn't end with the replacement law.

Madeline Goss, a 41-year-old transgender woman from Raleigh, said she fears for her safety under the current law: "There's so much gray area that it creates this confusion."

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