S.C. joins debate on gender, restrooms

Two protesters hold up signs against passage of legislation in North Carolina, which limits the bathroom options for transgender people, during a rally in Charlotte last week. A version of the North Carolina bill was filed Wednesday in South Carolina.

COLUMBIA — A conservative South Carolina lawmaker from the Upstate has introduced a bill similar to the controversial North Carolina law that prevents local governments from passing laws expanding the use of gender-designated public restrooms to transgender people.

Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, said he introduced the bill because his constituents voiced concern over the issue as it gained traction in North Carolina.

“There’s a segment of the population that believes that you ought to be able to use whatever restroom you identify yourself as being,” Bright said Wednesday.

“So they think it’s OK for a man to use a woman’s bathroom if he thinks he’s a woman,” Bright added. “From a safety issue, we don’t need men going in women’s bathrooms.”

The measure requires transgender people to use bathrooms matching the gender on their birth certificates, not how they may identify themselves. Bright stressed the measure’s importance is in the name of public safety, unrelated to differing bills and laws in other states concerning religious liberty.

Like North Carolina’s law, Bright’s bill directs South Carolina’s public schools, public universities and government agencies to require bathrooms or locker rooms be designated for use only by people based on their biological sex.

Bright added that government entities could provide single-stall bathrooms for either gender. But multi-stall restrooms would remain exclusive for the gender matching the person’s birth certificate. South Carolina is among a majority of states that allow a person who has had a sex change to obtain a new birth certificate. Private businesses can adopt their own bathroom policies.

The bill’s filing drew concerns from several rights groups which said South Carolina could easily find itself the target of business isolation, such as other states have seen in pushing similar legislation.

Warren Redman-Gress, executive director of the Charleston-based Alliance For Full Acceptance, said the bill already is in conflict with some local governments in the state. The cities of Charleston, North Charleston and Folly Beach, as well as the Charleston County government, in recent years have adopted sexual orientation nondiscrimination ordinances or resolutions to cover fairness in housing and public accommodations, he said. That includes restaurants, hotels and rental property.

Redman-Gress added that the response by the public and business groups in North Carolina against that state’s new law should be a warning to South Carolina lawmakers about possible economic and public relations losses. As an example, he pointed to the latest hit earlier this week when PayPal canceled its plans to open a new global operations center in Charlotte. It cost the state 400 jobs because the law prevents cities from enacting non-discrimination policies tied to gender identity.

“Besides the whole human rights issue, it’s bad for business,” he said, adding that corporations will see such laws as potentially affecting their own work forces.

Gov. Nikki Haley was asked about Bright’s bill and moves in others states Wednesday following a forum on cellphones being smuggled into prison.

“In South Carolina we are blessed because we don’t have to mandate respect or kindness or responsibility in this state,” Haley said. “I don’t know of any example that we’ve had a problem of. South Carolina is going to continue to focus on ethics and roads and jobs because we think we have that part covered.”

One of Bright’s most vocal colleagues, state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, announced his opposition to the measure swiftly.

“The world has watched what happened in North Carolina and the severe economic implications that can follow,” Lourie said. “I can see no logical reason why we would entertain such a ridiculous measure. We don’t need to join in this national conversation that can result in serious economic problems for this state.”

Shortly after Bright filed the bill, it drew two more supporters: Sens. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, and Larry Martin, R-Pickens.

Martin said he’s not in favor of passing a measure that is “blatantly discriminatory,” but he also doesn’t want his granddaughter sharing a bathroom with a person who is “confused” over their gender or “cross-dressers.”

“I don’t want to belittle folks,” Martin said. “But I do understand the concerns that you don’t want to put young people in that type of environment where a man dressed as a woman can go into a women’s bathroom.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.