Oxford, Alabama repeals 'bathroom bill' aimed at Target policy

The City Council voted to recall an ordinance restricting people to the restroom of their gender at birth after the city attorney warned it could leave Oxford vulnerable to legal action. 

Jonathan Drake/ Reuters
A sign designed by artist Peregrine Honig, which protests a recent North Carolina law restricting transgender bathroom access, adorns the bathroom stalls at the 21C Museum Hotel in Durham, North Carolina on May 3, 2016. On Wednesday, the City Council of Oxford, Alabama repealed an ordinance that would have similarly restricted bathroom access to the gender on someone's birth certificate.

Leaders of an east Alabama city Wednesday repealed an ordinance that would have imposed criminal penalties on people for using a restroom that doesn't match their gender at birth.

The Oxford City Council held a special meeting and voted 3-2 to recall the ordinance after reiterating to the crowd gathered in council chambers that their votes came after counsel from the city attorney and don't reflect a shift in their beliefs. The ordinance had not yet been signed by Oxford Mayor Leon Smith.

The ordinance — which the council unanimously approved last week — called for a misdemeanor charge, a fine of up to $500 and up to six months in jail.

City officials said the measure was passed out of concern for public safety in response to a policy by Target that allows staff and customers to use restrooms that align with their gender identity, which the National Center for Transgender Equality defines as a person's internal sense of being male, female or something else. Target, which operates a store in Oxford, announced the policy amid national debate about laws that LGBT advocates have criticized as discriminatory toward transgender people.

"This policy is very vague and open-minded. It gives no criteria or guidelines to define how to determine a person's gender identity," Councilman Chris Spurlin said of Target's policy. "We felt that this would open the door for our women and children to become easy prey."

Spurlin's suggestion to amend the ordinance rather than recall it prompted applause from the crowd in council chambers. Spurlin said he and others were concerned about the possibility of predators abusing flexible guidelines and claiming to be transgender to enter women's restrooms, changing rooms and other private areas.

Opponents, however, argue that the threat of predators is dramatically exaggerated. An April report from the Charlotte Observer found three known cases from the past 17 years in which men dressed as women were convicted of a crime in a women's restroom or changing room, although it was unclear if any involved transgender women. 

Oxford officials said the city attorney advised them that the ordinance could have serious legal implications under Title IX. Advocacy groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union also spoke out against the ordinance and said it potentially left the city of roughly 21,000 vulnerable to legal action.

Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, said in a statement that Oxford's ordinance is similar to many being considered by state legislatures across the country, which she says the group is challenging in court. The vote came the same day that the U.S. Department of Justice informed North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory that a law he signed that limits protections for LGBT people violates federal civil rights protections and cannot be enforced.

"The debate over gender identity and bathrooms that has tumbled through state legislatures this spring is now spreading to cities and towns from Oxford to Ocala, Fla.," The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this month. "North Carolina and Mississippi have passed 'bathroom bills'; 15 other states are considering doing so."

Council President Steven Waits said he was open to whatever legal battles might arise because of the ordinance. He voted against recalling the measure and said he was unmoved by what he considers a fear campaign from the ACLU, SPLC and calls to prioritize political correctness over public safety.

"My question has to be: What about the rights of the 99.7 percent of the population that do not identify themselves as transgender?" Waits said.

SPLC officials praised council members for recalling the ordinance after the vote Wednesday afternoon.

"The Oxford City Council did the right thing by recalling its discriminatory ordinance," SPLC staff attorney Chinyere Ezie said in a statement. "We are pleased the council members came to the conclusion that nobody should be criminalized simply for using the restroom."

Officials from the Human Rights Campaign have said Oxford's proposed law was discriminatory and unprecedented in imposing criminal penalties. The group also applauded City Council for its decision.

"This sends a welcome message of inclusion to Oxford's families, businesses and visitors, and sets an example for other communities that may be considering similar legislation," HRC Alabama State Director Eva Walton Kendrick said in a statement. "Fair-minded Americans do not believe in discrimination, and we must continue to educate one another on the importance of being inclusive and welcoming to all."

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