North Carolina's Senate has voted against repealing a law that requires transgender people to use the bathrooms of their assigned sex at birth. It's put the state in the middle of another heated national debate over transgender rights. (Reuters)

North Carolina lawmakers failed Wednesday to repeal a law regulating transgender people’s use of public restrooms, despite convening in a special legislative session for the express purpose of rescinding the controversial law.

The legislature adjourned Wednesday evening after a brutal day in which Republicans feuded over whether to fully or partially repeal the measure and Democrats accused them of reneging on a pledge to eliminate completely the “bathroom bill,” which requires people to use the public restroom that matches the sex on their birth certificates regardless of their gender identities.

Just days earlier, it appeared that North Carolina could scrap the law after months of criticism. Instead, the status quo remained in place. After a series of attempts to come to an agreement, the Senate voted down a bill to repeal the law, and the House adjourned without acting. They are scheduled to convene next in January.

Gay and transgender rights groups immediately condemned the outcome of the nine-hour session and criticized Republicans for preserving the “hateful” legislation that had led to boycotts, cost the state millions in lost tourism revenue, and prompted the National Basketball Association and the NCAA to move games.

“Today, the public trust has been betrayed once again. Lawmakers sent a clear message: North Carolina remains closed for business,” Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement.

The North Carolina legislature met for a special session on Dec. 21 over the state's much-criticized House Bill 2, which opponents say discriminates against transgender people, but did not repeal the controversial "bathroom law." (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Republicans, meanwhile, blamed Democrats, who rejected a version of the repeal that would have included a six-month moratorium on cities passing nondiscrimination ordinances to protect gay and transgender people. They also blamed the governor-elect, Attorney General Roy Cooper (D), who had paved the way for repeal by negotiating an agreement with the city of Charlotte to pull back a nondiscrimination ordinance it had enacted earlier this year.

“Make no mistake: Roy Cooper and Senate Democrats killed the repeal” of the law, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) said in a statement. “Their action proves they only wanted a repeal in order to force radical social engineering and shared bathrooms across North Carolina, at the expense of our state’s families, our reputation and our economy.”

Speaking to reporters late Wednesday, Cooper assailed Republicans for the day’s developments. “The Republican legislative leaders have broken their word to me, and they have broken their trust with the people of North Carolina,” he said. “This was our best chance. It cannot be our last chance.”

The special session came amid intense acrimony in the North Carolina political scene, as Republican lawmakers recently passed legislation aimed at stripping power from the Democratic governor-elect, who in turn has threatened a lawsuit.

A proposal Berger had introduced Wednesday would have repealed the bathroom bill, also known as H.B. 2. But its imposition of a temporary ban on any local government effort to “enact or amend an ordinance” regulating access to restrooms angered groups that have long opposed H.B. 2, which, in addition to its bathroom provision, also reversed local ordinances expanding protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who this month conceded to Cooper, had called the special session on Monday, hours after Charlotte officials said they would repeal part of the nondiscrimination ordinance the city passed in February. State lawmakers hastily introduced H.B. 2 in March, and McCrory quickly signed the bill, setting off a firestorm.

McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, has long criticized the city’s measure as “government overreach” and said H.B. 2 was needed to combat that ordinance and protect women. In a statement Wednesday night, he called the entire debate “a manufactured political issue that strategically targeted the city of Charlotte and our state by well-funded left-wing interest groups.”

Opponents of the bathroom bill, including the Justice Department, decried it as discriminatory, and big businesses and sports leagues echoed these concerns, halting planned expansions and relocating numerous games.

“Legislative leaders in North Carolina have proven their dishonesty time and time again, and they proved it again today,” Mara Keisling, president of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement Wednesday night. “They broke their promise to repeal this harmful bill, and then tried to ram through a halfway measure instead — and failed to do that as well.”

The battle in North Carolina could be a deterrent for other states to pass broad antidiscrimination measures or enact laws regulating bathroom use by transgender people. Still, transgender rights groups expect a number of states to propose the latter next year. Among them is Texas, where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) has said passing a “women’s privacy act” will be one of his top priorities next year.

Earlier Wednesday, the Charlotte City Council had held an emergency meeting to repeal its ordinance in full, a move meant to spur state lawmakers into action.

A spokeswoman for the city said the initial repeal vote Monday had affected only the part of the ordinance dealing with public accommodations, such as bathrooms, which council members thought would “sufficiently [fulfill] the requests of the General Assembly” and lead to H.B. 2’s repeal.

In a statement issued Wednesday night after state legislators failed to repeal H.B. 2, the city said officials there are “disappointed with this unfortunate outcome.”

“The Charlotte City Council acted in good faith to do everything it understood was needed to necessitate the state legislature repealing HB2,” the statement said.

When the council repealed part of its ordinance Monday, it stated that the measure would be restored if H.B. 2 were left in place by Dec. 31. That deadline was not included in the city’s repeal Wednesday, a Charlotte spokeswoman said.

The socially conservative North Carolina Family Policy Council had urged members Tuesday to call lawmakers to demand that they vote “no” on a repeal of H.B. 2. Dan Forest, the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, said that even if the law were repealed, “we will fight this battle all over again with another city or county.”

“The names will change, but the national groups who are pushing this agenda will not stop until their social engineering is accomplished,” Forest, a supporter of H.B. 2, said in a statement Wednesday morning.

On the other side, a newspaper in the liberal city of Asheville argued that the compromise was a losing proposition for gay and transgender people — as well as the state. “Even if everything goes as planned, the damage done to the state’s reputation is a bell that cannot be unrung,” the Asheville Citizen-Times editorial board wrote Tuesday. “Further, Charlotte’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents are back where they were a year ago, without the protections they deserve.”

Demonstrators in Raleigh, N.C., urge the repeal of House Bill (HB2), which has put North Carolina at the center of a national debate over LGBT rights. (Reuters)

Opponents of expanded transgender rights say that allowing explicit protections, particularly in the public sphere, not only breaks with long-standing social mores when it comes to gender and bathrooms but also could open the door to sexual predators gaining access to women’s restrooms.

Rights groups, however, say that such arguments are rooted in offensive stereotypes and do not reflect the reality of most transgender people, who have already been using their preferred bathrooms without incident.

Protesters denounce the bathroom bill outside the North Carolina governor’s mansion in March. (Jill Knight/The News & Observer via Associated Press)

After the bathroom bill was signed, musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Ringo Starr canceled shows in North Carolina, while Cirque du Soleil scrapped several performances in the state.

The NBA moved this season’s All-Star Game, while the NCAA took more extensive action, relocating the seven championship games set to take place in North Carolina this season, including two rounds of the men’s Division I basketball tournament.

Businesses including Google and Apple spoke out against the law. PayPal, a California-based online payment firm, and Deutsche Bank, a German financial giant, called off planned expansions in North Carolina. The moves would have brought a combined 650 jobs to North Carolina and been worth millions of dollars to the state, officials said.

This report, first published Wednesday at 1:33 p.m., has been updated several times. 

Further reading:

Federal judge says UNC can’t enforce North Carolina’s transgender bathroom restrictions

North Carolina’s outgoing GOP governor just stuck it to his Democratic successor

Charlotte set off the fight over the ‘bathroom law.’ Now it’s dealing with the fallout.