It seemed all but decided.
A motion specifically designed to erase Greenville County’s 1996 anti-gay resolution from the books looked set to pass smoothly though County Council at its regular meeting on the evening of Tuesday, March 3.
The same motion – which would have retroactively installed a four-year sunset clause on all County Council resolutions, thereby eliminating the 1996 resolution – had already passed easily in an earlier committee meeting on Tuesday, with 8 votes against 3.
But at the last minute, Councilmen Bob Taylor and Joe Dill switched their votes from yes to no, following a stream of dissenters opposed to the sunset clause, who came before the council to address their support of the 1996 resolution. Citing scripture and “traditional family values,” the dissenters were a new presence in a series of proceedings previously dominated by LGBT-rights activists and speakers.
The crowd was so large, in fact, that some had to stand outside and listen to the proceedings on loudspeakers, while the fire marshal monitored the number of people allowed inside.
A moment of confusion
Adding to the confusion, the sunset clause resolution still managed to receive a majority of votes, with 6 in favor and 5 opposed, and one absent vote (Councilman Ennis Fant, a consistent opponent of the 1996 resolution, was out of town and unable to attend).
When the vote’s 6-5 tally was announced, some of the LGBT allies and advocates in the audience let out cheers and began clapping, but that celebration was replaced by a sudden hush.
“The resolution fails to proceed on a 6-5 vote,” Council Chairman Butch Kirven said.
Murmurs rose from the audience.
“You need 7 votes in favor,” Kirven clarified, referring to council rules, “and it failed to achieve that. We’ll now move on.”
Voted yes: Lynn Ballard, Rick Roberts, Liz Seman, Dan Tripp, Butch Kirven, Xanthene Norris
Voted no: Bob Taylor, Joe Dill, Sid Cates, Mike Barnes, Willis Meadows
Absent: Enis Fant
Looming business worries
Hanging over the council proceedings Tuesday night was the mention by multiple council members of a recent New York Times profile of Greenville County and the Upstate. The article (“Why This Trump-Leaning Corner of South Carolina Has the Jitters,” by Richard Fausset) described Greenville as a poster child for drawing strong interest from national and international businesses, despite being “still defined by evangelical religion and social conservatism.”
“The dramatic metamorphosis of the Upstate has gone hand-in-hand with South Carolina’s broader strategy of marketing itself to international businesses,” the article notes.
The article also quotes a gay married woman who moved to Greenville about a decade ago, who described the city as “comfortable” for LGBT individuals like herself. “For some nonconformists, Greenville has become the kind of Southern city that one runs to – and not away from,” the article says. Now that progressive reputation was being questioned openly in council chambers.
Some members of the local LGBT community addressed the economic impact on Greenville that could ensue if council continues to fail to specifically condemn the 1996 resolution.
For a cautionary tale, Greenville need only look to North Carolina.
A bill which passed in that state – House Bill 2, signed into law in March 2016 – excluded LGBT individuals from statewide anti-discrimination protections, while requiring transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificates.
While supported broadly by North Carolina’s conservative and Evangelical community, the passage of the bill saw near-instant pushback from major businesses. The losses ranged from a canceled PayPal facility that would have added an estimated $2.26 billion to the state’s economy, to canceled shows from musicians like Ringo Starr.
In an age of social media condemnation and corporate hesitancy to rock the boat, companies are even more wary to move to areas that could be foreseen as problematic, according to Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan.
“Companies are moving to other places because they don’t face an issue that they face here,” Moynihan said, addressing the 2017 World Affairs Council of Charlotte Luncheon.
Even after House Bill 2 was repealed in North Carolina, the state is expected to take a $3.76 billion hit in lost business over a dozen years as a result of the bill’s passage, according to an Associated Press analysis.
“It has stained our reputation,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper at a press conference.
Strong dissent from some council members
Following the failed passage of the sunset clause at Tuesday’s council meeting, some members of the council expressed dissent over the vote, including Council Chairman Butch Kirven.
Kirven gave a six-minute speech to the packed crowd, in which he addressed the history and progress of LGBT rights in the United States and in South Carolina specifically.
Beginning with the 1996 anti-gay resolution, Kirven walked through the many legislative steps that led to the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that declared same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional.
“The 2015 Supreme Court case is now considered the law of the land and applies equally across all jurisdictions,” he said, “including South Carolina and its political subdivisions, such as Greenville County.”
Noting that the 1996 resolution supports state laws that have since been invalidated, Kirven said the resolution no longer holds significance, at least legally speaking. He then launched into a litany of all the responsibilities under the purview of Greenville County Council, mentioning more than 40 specific duties over which the council has control, notably excluding “community values” from that list.
“Community values and standards are as important today as they ever have been,” Kirven concluded, “and those things cannot be legislated or coerced by government. They must be nurtured by people themselves. Everyone has the freedom to seek and strive to achieve their own ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and this County Council cannot change that. Nowhere in state law in our given duties and responsibilities does it say anything about County Council being responsible for setting the community standards of Greenville County. Those are individual responsibilities. So that’s my comment on tonight’s proceedings.”
Late in Tuesday night’s council meeting, Councilman Joe Dill put forth a resolution to put the matter of the 1996 resolution as a referendum on the ballot of the general election on Nov. 3, 2020.
The ballot would ask the voters of Greenville County whether they believe and support the community values as expressed in the 1996 Greenville County Council Resolution.
Dill’s resolution has been referred to the Council’s Committee of the Whole and will be scheduled on the agenda at a “future appropriate time,” according to Kirven.
As for the LGBT speakers, advocates and allies present, they took to social media following the meeting to express their determination moving forward.
“Tonight wasn’t the result we wanted at all,” reads the message posted to the Facebook page of Upstate Pride SC, a local LGBT advocacy group. “But guess what? We still have PLENTY of fight left. See you all in two weeks. Same time. Same place. Same old fight for equality and inclusion.”