The third time wasn’t quite the charm for Buncombe County’s proposed nondiscrimination ordinance. At the April 6 meeting of the county Board of Commissioners, officials heard the third draft of a new local rule that would ban discrimination in employment and public accommodations based on 16 characteristics and lifestyles, including race, natural hair or hairstyles and gender identity.
Following its initial introduction during the March 16 meeting of the board, the measure was revised to apply its protections to housing in addition to public spaces such as stores, workplaces and restaurants.
Commissioner Parker Sloan noted that while the 1968 Fair Housing Act protects against discrimination when renting or buying a home or other housing-related activities, sexual orientation and gender identity are not among the classes protected by the federal law.
“It’s an attempt to make it clear to the community and an example through this ordinance that discrimination in housing among the LGBT community on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, that that kind of discrimination is not acceptable,” he said.
Eight members of the public voiced concern about the ordinance during the meeting, questioning whether business owners or religious establishments would be forced to hire LGBTQ people. Several commenters said that they felt that claims of discrimination against LGBTQ people were exaggerated.
The Rev. John Grant of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and the organization’s superintendent, the Rev. Ronald Gates, cited concern about religious freedom and the need for more community input before the board voted on the ordinance.
“It is a grave concern. … I oppose it due to the simple fact of the lack of transparency and full disclosure,” Gates said. “There’s a lot of gray areas that tie into a lot of information with this ordinance. And I want to oppose it because of my religious freedom and my freedom of speech and our business practices.”
Commenter Bob Machen said that discrimination in employment was “blown way out of perspective,” while resident John Hoerner said that he felt like the ordinance was addressing “a problem that doesn’t exist.”
“We already have discrimination laws, anti-discrimination laws. I think this puts a burden on a business owner especially,” he said.
Buncombe County Attorney Michael Frue pointed out that the ordinance doesn’t include criminal enforcement and no separate entity would investigate or enforce provisions of the law. He also noted the inclusion in the ordinance of exceptions for religious organizations, like churches and religious schools. Bars, which are considered private clubs in North Carolina, or other establishments that are not open to the public would also be exempt.
But business owner Eva Stewart maintained that the law would force hiring practices contrary to some religious beliefs.
“This ordinance has an inherent conflict because it offers an exemption for religious organizations on hiring but not for people like me, a homebuilder, who is being compelled by this ordinance to participate against my deeply held religious beliefs by hiring a transgender person,” Stewart said. “It is a violation of my constitutional First Amendment right. Also, it is not fair to expose transgender people to a male-dominated construction site, believe me.”
The latest version of the ordinance outlines a process in which residents who experience discrimination in employment or public accommodations may file a complaint with an equity officer designated by the county within 180 days of the incident, followed by an investigation. Residents would file housing discrimination claims with the N.C. Human Relations Commission, with assistance from the county. The original version of the ordinance also included a $500 daily fine, which subsequently was reduced to $100.
A second reading of the amended ordinance could come before the commissioners for a vote at the board’s Tuesday, April 20, meeting.