North Carolina’s latest spasm of state-sponsored bigotry — the LGBT discrimination law that has once again made the state a national pariah and laughingstock in recent days — was clearly driven to a great degree by a desire to appease the religious right. So-called Christian conservatives like Rev. Franklin Graham and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest were among the new law’s chief champions two weeks ago when state leaders took it from a back-of-the-envelope rough draft to state statute in less than 12 hours and the allies of these men have been among its staunchest defenders ever since.
That said, it’s important to point out that House Bill 2 was, like so many other acts of North Carolina’s political leaders in recent years, a lot more than a mere bone tossed to social issues crusaders. It was also the kind of proposal that could warm the hearts of Koch Brother-funded economic fundamentalists and followers of a famous libertarian/atheist icon as well.
Not only does the new law bestow huge new gifts on the big business lobby – most notably, an end to employment discrimination lawsuits in state court and a ban on local living wage ordinances – it marks the latest win for an extreme view of private property that one hears on a regular basis in so-called “free market” think tanks.
Back to Jim Crow?
As one of the groups funded by local Koch pal Art Pope stated in its “Economics and Environment Update” last week:
“From a free market libertarian perspective, House Bill 2, as it relates to decision making power regarding who can and cannot use bathroom or shower facilities in privately owned businesses, took the only position that is consistent with a free society. It came down firmly in favor of the separation of bathroom and state.
HB2 struck down Charlotte’s anti private property ordinance which in essence seized decision making power from private businesses regarding the use of bathrooms and shower facilities….The issue from a freedom perspective is not the specific mandate but the idea that there should be any mandate at all….The NC legislature deserves credit. It righted the Charlotte wrong without shoving the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. It embraced the basic principle that he who owns the bathroom gets to make the rules regarding its use, and that decision is not the business of any politician or government bureaucrat.” (Emphasis supplied.)
Did you catch that? Not only does the Pope group’s missive endorse the Governor’s and General Assembly’s action, it takes things a step further. It argues that the principle of “freedom” dictates that private businesses should be free to decide who should have access to the restrooms they make available to the public without any government interference in the decision.
This is, of course, the same position that segregationists like Georgia motel owner Moreton Rolleston, restaurant owner and future segregationist Georgia governor Lester Maddox and Alabama restaurant owner Ollie McClung took more than 50 years ago when they sued the federal government over its efforts to require them to serve people of color. They believed that they should, as private businesses, be free to serve whomever they wanted (which in their case, meant white people only). Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected their arguments.
If North Carolina were really to go all the way and adopt such a position, as the Pope group urges and the state of Mississippi effectively has tried to do in recent days, it’s hard to see how one can distinguish it from the positions espoused by Rolleston, Maddox and McClung a half-century ago. If private businesses are free to deny access to the accommodations made available to the public based on the sexual orientation of a customer, what’s to stop them from doing so based on the person’s race?
Surely, the answer can’t be that such discrimination is only okay based on the property owner’s religious beliefs. After all, it isn’t just LGBT people who are the subject of religion-based discrimination. Many racists ground their beliefs in religion too. And, anyway, religious “freedom” isn’t the basis of the positions taken by the Pope groups; their views are grounded in the supposedly sacred role of private property.
Private property extremism
Lest readers have any doubt as to how far the private property champions are willing to take this particular category of fundamentalism, consider another somewhat more mundane example from a hearing that took place just yesterday at the North Carolina General Assembly. At a meeting of the Joint Legislative Administrative Procedure Oversight Committee, House and Senate members considered a proposal inspired in large measure by the research and advocacy advanced by the same Pope-funded group that would have simply done away outright with a long list of state occupational licensing boards.
Their argument: that occupational licensing of acupuncturists, podiatrists, athletic trainers and a raft of other professions “costs jobs, hikes consumer prices, and harms the state’s economy, for little to no empirical benefits by way of safety and quality.” Better to leave matters to the “genius of the market” and private property rights than to “burden” property owners, entrepreneurs and bargain-hunting customers with the “heavy hand” of big government.
But, of course, this is utter hogwash. Sure, occupational licensing can be a bureaucratic hassle and go too far at times. Reform is always worth considering. But the notion of literally abolishing regulation in a long list of fields in which public safety is clearly at stake is an example of economic fundamentalism at its most absurd.
As one of the numerous members of the public who spoke out against the proposal at yesterday’s hearing reminded lawmakers, high school athletes suffering from concussions don’t have time to shop around when an athletic trainer comes out on the field of play to attend to their needs. And as another speaker pointed out, the same is obviously true when it comes to perfusionists – a group of professionals who oversee the use of heart-lung machines during various kinds of heart surgery.
Happily, even arch-conservative committee members listened to and heeded the public testimony and the proposal was relegated to more study for the rest of 2016.
When ideology trumps common sense
Unfortunately, yesterday’s action was a rare exception in recent years in Raleigh. In area after area over the last half-decade, North Carolina elected officials have elevated conservative ideology over common sense regulations when it comes to the intersection of property rights and public good. This has been most evident in the field of environmental protection where, as reporter Sharon McCloskey put it last December in the report Altered State: How 5 years of conservative rule have transformed North Carolina:
“In addition to rolling back regulations, [elected officials] cut funding and stripped staff at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and passed the word on to those who remained at the agency that, in the name of customer service, enforcement should take a back seat to the exploration and expansion of energy alternatives.”
The only exception to this pattern of regulatory destruction, it seems, are those occasions when rules dictated in Raleigh end up being congruent with the demands of the religious right or some other favored interests (e.g. limiting reproductive freedom or overriding local rules on LGBT rights, fracking and access to guns). In these areas, conservative state officials are only too happy to retain and seize power for themselves.
In short, North Carolina is a state right now that resembles a lab experiment run by a strange team of mad fundamentalist “scientists” bent on implementing extreme theories of governance. What’s more, at present, it’s increasingly clear that the experiment is raging out of control.