S.C. learns wrong lesson from N.C. bill

South Carolina should steer clear of the controversy over so-called “bathroom bills.” But tell that to S.C. state lawmakers.

North Carolina recently passed a law, HB2, signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, that limits attempts by cities and other jurisdictions from providing legal protections for LGBT individuals, including measures that would have allowed transgender people to choose the public restroom of their choice.

The backlash from critics, including some of the state’s largest employers, was swift and unequivocal. Last week, for example, PayPal scrapped plans to build a new Charlotte operations center, a move that will cost the city at least 400 jobs, as a protest to the new law.

Largely as a result of this pressure, McCrory now has reconsidered and is seeking to walk back parts of HB2.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, under similar pressure from major corporations that do business in the state, Gov. Nathan Deal announced March 28 that he would veto a bill that would have curtailed the rights of Georgia’s LGBT community. Deal, reading the writing on the wall, realized that the unnecessary bill could have jeopardized relations with some of the biggest employers in his state, ranging from Coca Cola to a burgeoning film industry.

So, with that in mind, what message did South Carolina legislators take away from these two responses? Well, one, state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, decided to introduce a bill just like North Carolina’s.

Among other things, the bill he introduced last week would limit access to public restrooms in government buildings and schools based on “biological sex,” and would prohibit local governments from passing non-discrimination rules that would let transgender individuals to use the restroom of their choice.

So far, other legislators and state leaders, including Gov. Nikki Haley, don’t seem too concerned about the issue for a couple of reasons. For one, the Legislature is too busy with other priorities to deal with Bright’s bill. But lawmakers also feel free to ignore the brouhaha because they are confident the state already has a law on the books that effectively allows residents to discriminate against the LGBT community.

The state’s so-called Religious Freedom Act, passed in 1999, is designed to protect those “whose exercise of religion is substantially burdened by the state.” Store owners, for example, who would like to deny access to their public restrooms to transgender customers could claim a religious exemption from state and local public access laws unless the government can show a “compelling state interest” in the law being enforced.

“When we look at our situation, we’re not hearing of anybody’s religious freedoms that are being violated,” Haley told reporters last week.

But we might be hearing more about the civil rights of LGBT individuals being violated by the Religious Freecom Act. The law clearly flies in the face of a number of nondiscrimination ordinances adopted by cities and counties around the state that protect access to “public accommodations,” on the basis of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression.”

That would seem to include transgender individuals’ use of public restrooms.

Besides being potentially unconstitutional, bills such as HB2 are simply impractical. Who will enforce the rules? Will toilet police require people to produce birth certificates proving their sexual identity at birth before they can relieve themselves?

Harriet Hancock, a Columbia lawyer who has been active in efforts to prevent LGBT discrimination, noted in a recent interview with the Charlotte Observer that “some of these (trans) women are some of the most attractive, voluptuous, sexiest women you’ll ever see. And you want them to use the men’s bathroom?”

That’s an interesting question. Which would be more disconcerting to other customers, requiring a transgender woman to use the men’s restroom or allowing her to choose?

These bathroom bills address a nonexistent problem. They are little more than a license for people to discriminate against members of the LGBT community and ignore longstanding law regarding public accommodations.

North Carolina’s law is unnecessary, unenforceable, harmful to commerce in the state, unfair and, basically, ridiculous. Why would South Carolina want to emulate that?