A week after Ted Cruz’s defended it in a failed attempt to boost his presidential bid, the battle over North Carolina’s anti-LGBT “bathroom bill” is exposing fissures in the conservative movement.
Since North Carolina hastily passed HB 2, in reaction to the city of Charlotte passing an ordinance prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination in public accommodations, the backlash against the bill has focused on corporations, organizations and individuals taking their business — and money — elsewhere in protest. At a press conference on Monday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch made a passionate moral case against such laws and accused North Carolina of “state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals.”
Let me speak now to the people of the great state, the beautiful state, my state of North Carolina. You’ve been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm – but that just is not the case. Instead, what this law does is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society – all it does is harm innocent Americans.
Instead of turning away from our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, let us instead learn from our history and avoid repeating the mistakes of our past. Let us reflect on the obvious but often neglected lesson that state-sanctioned discrimination never looks good in hindsight. It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains and on public accommodations keeping people out based upon a distinction without a difference. We have moved beyond those dark days, but not without pain and suffering and an ongoing fight to keep moving forward. Let us write a different story this time. Let us not act out of fear and misunderstanding, but out of the values of inclusion, diversity and regard for all that make our country great.
Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself. Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward. Please know that history is on your side. This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that promise, little by little, one day at a time. It may not be easy – but we’ll get there together.
The press conference was the culmination of a fast-moving series of events concerning the discriminatory law. Last week, the Justice Department sent a letter to North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, warning that state institutions must “remedy violations” to civil rights law in the infamous “bathroom bill,” or risk throwing the state into further fiscal chaos. The Department considers the law to be in violation of Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Violence Against Women Act. The letter warned that North Carolina risks losing millions of dollars in federal funds, including more than $800 million in federally backed loans for public universities.
The Department gave McCrory until Monday afternoon to declare that he would not enforce the law. It would have been the easy way. The governor could simply have explained that federal law supersedes state law. Instead, North Carolina officials sued the Department of Justice over the challenge to HB 2. The Department responded by filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against North Carolina.
McCrory’s response, and conservatives’ desperate attempt to defend it, reveal deep fissures in modern conservatism, deepened by the hammer-blow of Donald Trump’s ascension to presumptive GOP presidential nominee. The Department of Justice sent its letter to McCrory just one day after Sen. Ted Cruz suspended his campaign following his crushing defeat by Trump in the Indiana primary. Ohio governor John Kasich suspended his campaign the same day, leaving Trump the last candidate standing.
Cruz’s defeat should have been writing on the wall for McCrory and North Carolina conservatives. Cruz — always one of the most extreme anti-LGBT candidates — made defending North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” a central theme of the last few weeks his campaign. (Cruz’s top supporters in the state were big opponents of the Charlotte ordinance, and their advocacy led the legislature to pass HB 2.) In an effort to shore up the evangelical support he counted on to keep him in the race, Cruz pulled out all the stops, engaging in full-tilt fear mongering and employing imagery of “adult grown men” allowed “to be alone in a bathroom with little girls.”
In Indiana, which faced a backlash against its own anti-LGBT “religious freedom” law a year go, Cruz joked that Trump would not be allowed in a women’s bathroom even if he dressed in drag. Trump had previously suggested that transgender people who’ll feel free to use the restroom they felt “appropriate” to them. Cruz responded that he didn’t think transgender people should be allowed to use public restrooms at all.
It didn’t work. Trump won the evangelical vote in Indiana’s by 5 points. “Donald Trump is not any hero on LGBT equality, for sure,” said Jay Brown, communications director of the LGBT rights organization the Human Rights Campaign. “But Cruz’s attempts in the last two weeks to demonize trans people backfired.” Cruz’s defeat was a surprise victory for LGBT rights.
Ted Cruz’s sudden exit from the presidential race, after publicly supporting HB 2, should have signaled McCrory and North Carolina conservatives that the ground had shifted under their feet politically. McCrory knew enough to sense that height be in trouble. “… I might be in trouble. I might be looking for a job over here,” he admitted on a Sunday radio broadcast of “The Big Show with John Boy and Billy.” McCrory also tried to distance the law from its connection to the Charlotte ordinance, saying that it “had nothing to with gay and lesbian.” McCrory faces a reelection fight against Democratic Attorney Roy Cooper, who has refused to defend the law.
It’s not just McCrory. As they continue to lose the PR battle over HB 2, North Carolina Republicans are starting to fear how much it will cost them. “The reality is that HB 2 hurts,” said Rep. Charles Jeter, who is charged with helping the GOP keep its majority in 2016. “HB 2 is going to have reverberations for our party no matter what we do, in November and probably beyond that.”
Coming on the heels of Trumps ascendancy and Cruz’s defeat, the North Carolina’s looming battle with the Justice Department over HB 2 is further evidence of the deep fissures that exist on the right — even among religious conservatives. As younger evangelicals embrace more tolerance views and begin to join the movement, more evangelicals support Trump.
Meanwhile, so-called “values voters” are losing their dominance in the public discourse. Having lost on marriage equality, failed to end legal abortion, and retreated on “religious freedom,” religious conservatives are looking to “bathroom bills” like North Carolina’s to save them. But they already lost the GOP’s natural allies among corporate America, because they’ve already lost the public opinion battle. According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 57 percent of Americans oppose law requiring transgender individuals to use facilities that do not match their gender identity.. (Republicans are evenly spit by ideology, with 48 percent opposing such laws, and 48 percent in favor.) An overwhelming majority, 75 percent, support laws guaranteeing equal protection for transgender people in jobs, housing, and public accommodations.
As with Donald Trump’s rise to presumptive nominee, the battle over North Carolina’s anti-LGBT “bathroom bill” only widens and deepens foundational fissures that Republicans have long ignored, resulting in a political party increasingly divided against itself.