by Joseph M. Sellers and Miriam R. Nemeth. Mr. Sellers is the head of the Civil Rights and Employment practice group at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, PLLC. Ms. Nemeth is an associate in that practice group. In May, Cohen Milstein will be opening an office in Raleigh, North Carolina that will be headed by the Honorable Martha Geer, who is leaving the North Carolina Court of Appeals to take on that role.
North Carolina has justifiably been pilloried in recent weeks for enacting legislation that requires public school students and state employees to use the bathrooms reserved for their biological sex, regardless of the gender with which they identify. In many ways, this legislation resurrects memories of racially segregated restrooms that were mandated by law until the middle of the last century. Motivated by the same kind of fear and unjustified stereotypes as before, the segregation this time is directed at transgender people.
The bill’s requirement that state employees and public school students use restrooms designated for their sex at birth, regardless of the gender with which they identify, is bad enough. But the bill also limits protections against sex discrimination to one’s “biological sex,” which further reinforces state-sponsored hostility to transgender people. Although such a limitation may not impose the same daily inconvenience or humiliation as the restroom restriction, it wholly exempts transgender people from the state’s legal protection. Like the bigotry of racism, this officially sanctioned discrimination rests on unfounded stereotypes and fears about transgender people. Nowhere else do we require employees and students who wish to use public restrooms to announce what their genitalia look like.
Even more troubling and little noticed, however, this legislation also gutted the state’s civil rights laws. Enacted as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, a wholesome title that masks its pernicious effect, this legislation withdrew a private right for anyone (not just transgender people) to challenge in the state’s courts any form of discrimination in employment and public accommodations. Part III specifically provides that the state’s existing statutory protections—including the language added by House Bill 2—do not “create or support a statutory or common law private right of action and no persons may bring any civil action based upon the [discrimination prohibitions] expressed therein.” House Bill 2, Sess. Law 2016-3, Pt III. In that one clause, the legislation abolished North Carolina’s common law cause of action for wrongful discharge based on discrimination, which had been recognized by the courts since 1989.