DURHAM, N.C. — In this state where the modern bathroom wars began, some church and civil rights leaders have begun to spread the word that there’s plenty else to worry about in the controversial new law known formally as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act.
The law not only reverses a Charlotte ordinance that had extended some rights to gay and transgender people. It also prevents city and county governments from setting a minimum-wage standard for private employers and limits how people can sue for discrimination in state court. And it contains a provision allowing for remaining parts of the law to stand if others are struck down in court.
Those provisions, opponents say, are pernicious attempts to roll back rights, and they have been tucked into a bill that has a very different public face.
“This is really a devious bill that harms workers under the guise of regulating bathrooms,” said Harold Lloyd, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law.
A campaign is underway to explain just that to North Carolinians such as John Houston, a 70-year-old pastor from Kinston, who says he shares Gov. Pat McCrory’s moral conviction that a law is needed to make people use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate.
Activists and groups including the state NAACP are now on a crusade to educate conservative voters such as Houston, who agree with the law because of deeply held religious beliefs or live in more-conservative parts of the state, about its additional components.
They say the totality of the law disproportionately affects African Americans, women and immigrants along with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and is reminiscent of the policies of the segregation era.
Even as the heated debate on transgender bathroom accommodations spreads across the country in response to Friday’s directive from the Obama administration to all public schools, opponents of the new law are crisscrossing the state, often invoking the civil rights battles that took place here and throughout the South in the 1950s and 60s.
“This is not about bathrooms. It’s about whether or not you can codify hate and discrimination into the laws of the state,” said the Rev. William Barber II, who leads the North Carolina NAACP and is also fighting the state over its voter-identification law.
Barber and other opponents said the law, which was introduced, debated, passed and signed in a single day in March, was put forward to help McCrory (R) and Republican legislators hang onto their seats in what is bound to be a contentious November election in a state whose liberal cities and conservative countryside have turned it a solid shade of purple. McCrory is in a tight race with Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, who has denounced the law and said he wouldn’t defend it.
“This is about November. It’s about wedge issues, and it’s about sexual and racial fears,” Barber said. He said it is the latest manifestation of the “Southern strategy” employed by Republicans to gain political support based on fear of the other.
“It’s almost sad that they’re living in a historical time warp and they believe that they can run these little wedge issues and people can’t see through them.”
A spokesman for McCrory did not return requests for comment, nor did the bill’s sponsors. The governor took action to try to blunt the backlash, banning discrimination in state personnel decisions and calling for the legislature to enact a law reversing the provision that makes it difficult to sue for discrimination in state court.
But in places like rural Kinston, whose population is about 68 percent black, many said they agreed with the transgender bathroom part of the law for moral or religious reasons, but that they knew little about the minimum-wage and employment-discrimination provisions.
“If you’re going to lose millions of dollars and affect everyone in this state, maybe it ain’t right,” Houston said. Lenoir County, where Kinston is located, gives free breakfast and lunch to all students, a program funded in large part by federal dollars.
The White House said Thursday it would not cut federal funding to North Carolina while the lawsuits are winding their way through court.
Barber went to western North Carolina earlier this month to talk about the issue, and he plans to have what he calls a “Moral Monday” protest in Raleigh this week. At least 54 people protesting the law, which is also called House Bill 2 (H.B. 2) and which Barber calls “Hate Bill 2,” were arrested at a sit-in at the state Capitol last month.
Barber said he tries to present the totality of the law, and people typically disagree with it once they learn more about the transgender issue and minimum-wage provisions.
At least one legislator who voted for it said he didn’t realize all that the law encompassed. North Carolina state Rep. George W. Graham Jr., who represents Lenoir County and voted for the bill, told the Raleigh News and Observer that he didn’t know until after the vote that the legislation dealt with issues of minimum wage and discrimination suits.
“Those are two of the major things that are antithetical to what the state’s history has been about and its evolution over the last 50 years,” said state Sen. Daniel T. Blue Jr. (D).
The campaign against H.B. 2 is similar to one that advocates waged in the wake of a battle over voting rights here after the state passed a controversial voting rights law, one of the strictest in the nation in 2013. The Justice Department and state civil rights groups sued. In April, a federal judge upheld North Carolina’s law; the groups have appealed.
Barber said the law and a redrawing of the state’s congressional maps led to an “unconstitutionally constituted legislature passing unconstitutional legislation.”
U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, a North Carolina native whose father grew up in the segregated South, also used the language of the civil rights movement that Barber and others have employed when talking about H.B. 2. In a news conference Monday, she compared conflicts about bathrooms and transgender people to Jim Crow laws.
McCrory said on “The Mark Levin Show” on Monday that he takes issue with people comparing the bathroom law to the civil rights struggle.
“There is absolutely no relevance between the issue of civil rights for African Americans, which went through a tremendous struggle, and the issue of how do we determine the gender of a person going into our public showers or public restrooms or public locker rooms,” McCrory said.
He said the church in which Lynch grew up supports the law; her father was the pastor at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham for years. The church said last week the pastor has not taken a public position on the law.
Lynch’s lawsuit is suing over “compliance and implementation of Part I” of the North Carolina law, not the other sections. The Justice Department did not respond to a request seeking comment.
“Who would you be in 1963?” Nancy “Mama Nia” Wilson, executive director of SpiritHouse, an arts and organizing group in Durham, said she asks people after she explains the law.
That appeal has not yet changed the minds of voters such as Carlos Parker, who was chatting with a friend at Christian Cuts barbershop in Kinston. He didn’t know about the other provisions of the bill but agrees with McCrory’s stance on bathrooms.
“I’m with McCrory. I hate to say that,” said Parker, 38. “I think McCrory is standing his ground for religious beliefs.”