COLUMBIA — With the defeat of the bathroom bill in the South Carolina Senate, some are wondering if the state is now more progressive than its northern neighbor, which remains vexed by the law North Carolina lawmakers passed earlier this year.
Jeff Ayers, executive director of South Carolina Equality Coalition, which advocates lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender rights issues, said at the start of the year there were 11 anti-LGBT bills filed in the South Carolina Legislature. With a month left in the legislative session, he said, only one of those bills made it to full committee and none have advanced to the floor.
“South Carolina will be one of the only states in the deep South that has stopped all the LGBT bills at the committee level, where other states have advanced them to the other chamber and voted on them,” he said. “So I think on that point, we are more progressive. I think hearts and minds are changing on LGBT issues.”
Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat who opposed the bathroom bill calling it discriminatory, said the removal of the Confederate flag last year from the Statehouse grounds as well as the failure of the bathroom bill make the state more progressive.
“I think you’ve seen South Carolina in the last year take two strong positions against intolerance,” he said, “one by removing the Confederate flag and two by the governor and business community and many members of the state Senate standing up against the bathroom bill.”
Those actions, he said, speak to the future of South Carolina.
“We are more open-minded and progressive perhaps than people have viewed us in the past,” he said.
The bill by Sen. Lee Bright, a Spartanburg County Republican, would bar people from using public bathrooms, changing rooms and locker rooms that do not correspond with their biological sex and prevent local governments from passing legislation allowing such use.
The legislation is similar to a recently enacted North Carolina law that has spawned controversy, protests and a move to repeal the law. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory issued an executive order several weeks ago addressing some provisions in the law though leaving unchanged the most talked about part that requires people to use bathrooms of their sex at birth.
Ted Pitts, CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which opposed Bright’s bill, said while he would not apply social labels to the state, some business members have compared the differences of what has happened in South Carolina and North Carolina on the issue.
“We have talked to members who have moved from looking at North Carolina to looking at South Carolina because they have seen the governor’s comments, they’ve seen how the Senate has responded and told Sen. Bright, ‘No thanks, we’ve got real issues we need to work on, work-force issues, ethics reform, infrastructure issues and we’re not going to let you waste the last month of the Senate’s session on a problem that doesn’t exist.’ ”
Phil Noble, president of the South Carolina New Democrats, said he thinks the state is more progressive and is changing.
“It’s changing faster than a lot of us realize,” he said. “We in South Carolina are better than we think we are.”
Noble said the state ranks second in the nation in new residents and is the No. 1 state in terms of foreign capital investment. The state’s response to the shooting deaths of eight black parishioners and their pastor, Sen. Clementa Pinckney, was a turning point, he said.
“We are a different state than we were 50 years ago,” he said. “This is no oasis of racial brotherhood but we have turned the page.”
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Charleston Democrat who opposed the bathroom bill, said state lawmakers have made some right decisions but that doesn’t make the state progressive.
The bills requiring body cameras for police, the first legislation of its kind in the nation, and removing the Confederate flag were more reactionary to horrific events, he said.
He has filed legislation to increase the minimum wage, which was rejected, he said.
And while it’s true the Senate stopped the bathroom bill, senators’ responses came after watching what North Carolina went through with a similar bill, a backlash that has included protests, petitions, cancelled concerts and lost jobs.
“If it was filed in South Carolina first, who knows what would have happened,” he said. “I would like to say we’re more progressive on social issues but I’m not ready to draw that conclusion.”
The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT civil rights group, in January released its scorecard on how states compare on equality laws and policies and rated South Carolina and North Carolina in the bottom tier, which it labels as “high priority to achieve basic equality.”
Cathryn Oakley, senior legislative counsel for the organization, said there is a contrast between how South Carolina and North Carolina have dealt with the bathroom bill issue.
North Carolina’s governor has continued to defend the law while South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said quickly that she wasn’t interested in it, Oakley noted. South Carolina senators took time to talk to people about the proposal in hearings, whereas North Carolina lawmakers passed the law in an emergency session.
“So I do think there is a comparison there that has something to it,” she said.
Last year, the HRC issued an index measuring equality in 400 municipalities in the nation, including South Carolina and North Carolina.
The scorecard included 41 criteria, including non-discrimination laws, municipality’s employment policies, including transgender-inclusive insurance coverage, contracting non-discrimination requirements, and other policies relating to equal treatment of LGBT city employees.
The national average on the index was 56 and South Carolina’s cities averaged 33. North Carolina’s averaged 49, according to the organization.