Generating a social media firestorm may be the most effective action that LGBTQ people can take when they face discrimination in public accommodations in some places in North Carolina, given existing law.

That’s what McCae Henderson and his finance, Ike Edwards, did last week after the owner of the Highgrove Estate in Fuquay-Varina said he would not host the couple’s same-sex wedding.

North Carolina law

State law in North Carolina does not protect people based on their sexual orientation from discrimination in education, employment, housing, credit or public accommodations, such as service by a business.

Advocates for LGBTQ people say they hear regularly from those who have been told they could not have a job, an apartment or a space in an emergency shelter because of their sexual orientation or sexual identity.

Allison Scott, a trans woman who is director of impact and innovation for the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, said the stated reasons may vary, but often have to do with a business owner or operator’s religious beliefs.

Local anti-discrimination ordinances

Until December 2020, a state law made it illegal for local governments in the state to write any new ordinances banning discrimination in private employment or public accommodations. Since the expiration of the ban, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Durham, Greensboro, Hillsborough and Orange County have passed anti-discrimination ordinances.

Those who feel they have been discriminated against in violation of such bans can make complaints through local jurisdictions.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case

The North Carolina Department of Justice, through Attorney General Josh Stein’s office, has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that the federal Civil Rights Act protects people against discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity. The state was one of 19 states and the District of Columbia that joined in a friend-of-the-court brief in the case involving the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, whose owner refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the bake shop without addressing the issue of discrimination by saying that a member of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had expressed hostility toward religion in comments about the case.

Suits in federal court

If protected against discrimination under federal law, LGBTQ people can sue in federal court, but advocates say such cases are costly and drawn out and, like the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, may not result in clear case law on the intersection of anti-discrimination laws and those protecting freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.

Advocate groups

The Campaign for Southern Equality and Equality North Carolina, based in Raleigh, both advocates for LGBtQ rights, may be able to help find alternate resources for LGBTQ people who encounter discrimination.

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.