By Roy Cordato at Mises Institute
The saga of the so-called Charlotte bathroom ordinance — and the state of North Carolina’s response to it — has taken on a life of its own. At the national level leftists are accusing North Carolina of bigotry while, in the name of tolerance, a growing list of performers and businesses are boycotting the state. Unfortunately, what has gotten lost in all the rhetoric surrounding this issue is the truth about both the original Charlotte law and the state’s response to it.
In late February the Charlotte, North Carolina, city council passed an “antidiscrimination” law, scheduled to go into effect on April 1. It was aimed at protecting what, in the view of the city council, are the rights of those in the gay, lesbian, and transgender community. The centerpiece of this law was a provision that prohibits businesses providing bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers from segregating usage of those facilities by gender, biologically defined. Biological males or females must be allowed to use the facilities of the opposite sex if they claim that that is the sex they identify with psychologically. (Note, no proof was required.)
Much of the criticism of the Charlotte bill was centered around two issues: the religious freedom of business owners and the privacy rights of people, particularly women, using public bathroom and shower facilities. Most of the vocal opposition to the ordinance came from religious organizations and advocacy groups that focused on traditional values. As argued by John Rustin, President of the Family Policy Council:
Similar ordinances have been used to force small business owners like florists, bakers, photographers and bed-and-breakfast owners and others either to conform to a government-dictated viewpoint in violation of those sincerely held religious beliefs or to face legal charges, fines and other penalties that have ultimately caused some to go out of business.
Private Property, Not Religion, Is the Key
While religious liberty is an important concern, the issue is much broader. This ordinance was an assault on the rights of private property owners and economic freedom, regardless of one’s religious beliefs.
The primary targets of the Charlotte ordinance were privately owned businesses that offer bathrooms, changing rooms, showers, etc., for their customer’s convenience. The decision of how to structure access to these facilities may, for some, be based on their religious beliefs but for many others it is a secular business decision. Their goal is customer satisfaction driven by the desire to make a profit and earn a living. The property that they use is privately owned, the investments that they make come from private funds, and those who reap the rewards or suffer the losses are private entrepreneurs. The bathrooms in their establishments are part of the product that they provide.
In a free society based on property rights and free markets, as all free societies must be, a privately owned business would have the right to decide whether or not it wants separate bathrooms strictly for men and women biologically defined, bathrooms for men and women subjectively or psychologically defined, completely gender neutral bathrooms with no labels on the doors, or no bathrooms at all.
Businesses Seek to Please Their Customers
Their goal is to provide the products and services that most of their customers want in an environment that those customers feel comfortable in. This environment may indeed be different for different establishments depending on the desires and cultural makeup of their clients. This Charlotte ordinance told businesses that they are not allowed to adjust their decisions regarding their bathroom, locker room, or shower facilities in order to accommodate customer preferences. In this sense the now overturned Charlotte ordinance was a gross violation of property rights and economic freedom and on libertarian grounds needed to be overturned.
So what was the state of North Carolina’s response to all this? In fact, it was to restore freedom and property rights and to guarantee those rights across the state. The law in North Carolina that so many progressives are up in arms about does not prohibit businesses from having bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, etc., that allow use by people of all genders defined biologically, psychologically, or whatever. In a “myths vs facts” explanatory statement put out by the governor of North Carolina this was made quite clear:
Can private businesses, if they choose, continue to allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom, locker room or other facilities of the gender they identify with ...?
Answer: Yes. That is the prerogative of private businesses under this new law. …The law neither requires nor prohibits them from doing so.
In other words, the state of North Carolina codified a basic libertarian principle: the separation of bathroom and state.
The only place where bathrooms, showers, etc., must conform with biological sex is in government owned facilities — courtrooms, city halls, schools, etc., where this separation is not possible. So yes, in North Carolina 12-year old boys, defined by what body parts they are sporting, may not use the girls’ locker room and showers after gym class at the local public middle school. Of course private middle schools are free to do what they want. If not believing that this is unjust discrimination makes me a bigot, then so be it.
So where does this approach leave the issue of religious freedom? For the most part, and particularly in cases like this, religious freedom is nothing more than the right to use your own property in a way that comports with your religious beliefs. This applies not only to the issue of who gets to use what bathrooms but also to the Little Sister’s of the Poor and Obama’s contraceptive mandate, and most of the other religious freedom cases that are of concern to traditional values advocates. If property rights and economic freedom are the values that are upheld, then religious freedom will take care of itself.