Chatham adopts LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance

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PITTSBORO — Chatham County commissioners approved a LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance at their meeting Monday night — making Chatham the 12th local government to do so in North Carolina.

The policy, effective Oct. 1, prohibits discrimination in Chatham County in places of public accommodation and in employment on the basis of race, natural hair or hairstyles, ethnicity, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, national origin, national ancestry, marital status, familial status, pregnancy, veteran status, religion, religious belief or non-belief, age or disability. The ordinance amends Title XI of the Chatham County Code of Ordinances.

“We now recognize with so many more voices participating in these spaces, that there is so much more nuance and diversity to who we are,” Commissioner Karen Howard said before making a motion to adopt the ordinance.

“The fact that we are broadening this space to protect people in whatever incarnation they show up is so important to me,” she said. “And I’m very grateful to … this board for engaging and being as progressive as this really is and saying that we want to be a county where people are treated fairly, equally, equitably and in a way that honors exactly who they believe themselves to be.”

The ordinance was presented by County Attorney Bob Hagemann, who said Chatham’s policy was modeled after Chapel Hill’s, which was approved in January. In the state ordinances he reviewed, Hagemann noted that Carrboro was the only neighboring government to protect natural hair and hairstyles; Chapel Hill and Hillsborough’s policies did not. In January, Durham and Greensboro both protected natural hair in updates to their anti-discrimination ordinances.

Back on July 19, commissioners asked county staff to look into writing a nondiscrimination policy to be presented to the board at this meeting.

“We want to do everything we can to provide protections against discrimination that reflect our community’s shared values of equality, inclusion, and fair access; and to preserve the health, safety, and welfare of people regardless of their statuses or characteristics,” board Chairperson Mike Dasher said in a county email on Tuesday. “As Chatham County continues to grow, we want to ensure residents, employees, and visitors that we are a welcoming and inclusive community.”

On Monday, Winston-Salem’s government also approved a nondiscrimination ordinance, meaning that 20% of North Carolinians now live in communities with LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections, according to an email from Campaign for Southern Equality following Winston-Salem and Chatham’s votes.

“The passage of two amazing ordinances, in Winston-Salem and Chatham County, sends a strong message: North Carolina cities and counties care deeply about racial and social justice,” said Equality for North Carolina Executive Director Kendra R. Johnson in that email. “Momentum is building for protections on the local level, and we encourage more cities and counties to follow suit.”

Federally, people are protected against discrimination through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, color and national origin. Title VII of that act also includes protections on the basis of sex, which the Supreme Court has since said includes protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, though not explicitly mentioned.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission helps enforce federal protections and hears complaints in the case of companies that employ more than 15 people. Hagemann said that “if and when” the county receives a complaint about employment discrimination from someone who works for a company with more than 15 people, the county “may very well recommend and suggest that they pursue relief through the EEOC, under federal law, which has more robust remedies than our local ordinance would have.”

“With regard to enforcement, we have no idea the volume of complaints we might receive,” Hagemann said. “My understanding is in the other jurisdictions, it’s been pretty quiet so far. But that can change, we’ll have to monitor it.”

Though complaints filed through the EEOC are not public record, complaints filed with the county will be, Hagemann said. Remedies available under state and federal law all also still apply to Chatham employees and residents, he said, and would take precedent. (Previous state laws which preempted such local regulation of discrimination, like House Bill 142, since expired.)

The policy is decriminalized, meaning a violation of it will not constitute a misdemeanor or infraction. Enforcement could include mandatory or prohibitory injunctions “commanding the defendant to correct the conduct prohibited,” the ordinance says. 

If and when the county receives complaints, Hagemann said the county manager would direct staff to conduct an investigation and then engage in conciliation, an informal process that aims to resolve the matter by agreement. The next level of county enforcement would mean going to court and seeking an injunction or court order directing compliance with the ordinance.

The ordinance goes into effect Oct. 1 — a date Hagemann said he picked in order to give affected businesses time to be educated on the policy.

​​”The overall message is that this is an area of public concern, and that in the absence of state and an effective federal presence, we’re establishing this standard of equal employment opportunity, period, end of story,” Commissioner Jim Crawford said. “So, I wholeheartedly approve, but I know it’s going to mean that this board in the future will inevitably have some hard cases — but that’s what we’re taking on.” 

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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