LGBTQ rights, the UNC System and Christian nationalism: Three stories we’ll be watching closely in 2023

By: - January 5, 2023 12:14 pm

“It is difficult to make predictions,” Dutch politician Karl Kristian Steincke once wrote. “Especially about the future.”

But if you’re a reporter who carefully follows a few issues, you don’t need a crystal ball to have a fairly good idea of what to look for in the new year. Here are some stories we’re certain we’ll be following and reporting on in 2023:

1. Renewed legislative assaults on LGBTQ people

For LGBTQ people in North Carolina, 2022 was a year of tensions, tragedies, wins and losses.

Transgender North Carolinians saw two major legal victories — winning the right to change the gender marker on their birth certificates without undergoing medical transition and a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s exclusion of gender-affirming health care for transgender state employee under the state health plan.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a potential Republican candidate for governor in 2024, is challenging the health care ruling.

But North Carolina was also caught up in an unprecedented wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation, with bills introduced which would exclude transgender people from school sports, require teachers to out LGBTQ students to their families, and ban any instruction or material mentioning LGBTQ people in kindergarten through third grade. Facing a certain veto from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and potential blowback from major pro-LGBTQ corporations looking to invest in the state, Republican leaders in the General Assembly didn’t bring those bills to a vote in 2022.

But Cooper’s veto – and Democrats’ ability to sustain it in the General Assembly – was the only sure defense against those bills being taken up and passing. After Democratic losses in the 2022 elections, Republicans now need just one Democratic vote in the House (or the absence of a single member) to overcome a Cooper veto.

That new mathematical reality and a large conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has LGBTQ advocates worried 2023 could see a renewed push to pass new laws aimed at LGBTQ people and claw back progress they’ve made.

The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade — and the legal reasoning underpinning that decision — has led some legal experts to predict the court will also revisit the landmark Obergefell decision that gave same-sex marriage constitutional protection. LGBTQ advocates are warning the recently passed Respect for Marriage Act doesn’t go far enough to protect LGBTQ couples and families. While it ensures marriages legal in one state will be recognized across the country, it doesn’t prevent states from turning back the clock to a period in which same-sex couples can be married in some states but not others.

North Carolina was the last state in the U.S. to pass a same-sex marriage ban by statewide referendum prior to the Obergefell ruling. Amendment One was approved by a margin of 61% to 39% in a 2012 primary election with a turnout of just 35%.

“Today’s passage of the Respect for Marriage Act crucially codifies marriage equality for our communities,” said Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC in a statement after it passed. “However, LGBTQ+ people deserve so much more. We need our legislators to pass comprehensive legislation which protects our communities, like the Equality and Fairness for All Act. Moreover, we need federal protections from the onslaught of hateful legislation and policy being enacted on the state level. The passage of the Respect for Marriage Act is a good step, but there’s a massive gulf between where we are now and where we need to be.”

While marriage equality is an issue that increasingly divides Republicans, the party and its elected officials continue to fully back anti-transgender legislation at the local, state and national levels.

“The state legislative seasons in the last few years have seen so many bills targeting LGBTQ people, particularly trans people and trans youth,” said Alexis Rangel, policy counsel with the National Center for Transgender Equality, in a recent interview with Policy Watch. “We’ve had to split our attention between local governments, state governments and school boards. It’s an attack on all fronts and it’s very well coordinated.”

In November, just across the border in Virginia, Republican state lawmakers filed Senate Bill 791, which would outlaw gender affirming care for transgender youth and allow health insurance companies to decline coverage for gender affirming care for transgender people of any age. The bill is a version of the same anti-transgender legislation recently passed in Arkansas that is now the subject of a federal lawsuit.

Conservative activists and lawmakers have discussed similar bills in North Carolina and are actively pushing for them in the coming legislative session. Policy Watch will continue to follow this legislative battle in the coming months.

2. Continued politicization of the UNC System

The past year saw a ramping up of the politicization of the UNC System that Policy Watch has been documenting for years.

In April, the American Association of University Professors released a scathing 38-page report documenting what it called rampant political interference and institutional racism at UNC. In June, the national faculty group voted unanimously to officially condemn the system and its board of governors for a pattern of interference it said chills speech and threatens academic freedom.

The system’s swift response was to deny the report’s findings, defend its record, and criticize the AAUP itself.

That defense, sent to AAUP before the report was officially released, was authored by Kimberly van Noort, then the system’s senior vice president for academic affairs. Before that defense, van Noort also authored a defense of the system and UNC-Chapel Hill’s board of trustees in the controversy over that’s board’s refusal to vote on tenure for Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The controversy generated national headlines and threatened boycotts, caused alumni to discontinue giving to the university and ultimately led UNC-Chapel Hill to enter into an out-of-court settlement with Hannah-Jones.

“It is hard to read this as anything other than a situation in which a sought-after scholar weighed multiple tenure offers and selected the one she most wanted to pursue,” van Noort wrote, minimizing the months-long affair and the multiple shocking revelations of behind-the-scenes pressure and lobbying by wealthy donors and politically connected alumni.

Where is van Noort now? She was made interim provost at UNC-Asheville, where Chancellor Nancy Cable stepped down at year’s end. UNC System President Peter Hans announced van Noort as interim chancellor in October, at the time of Cable’s announcement.

Over the last two years, critics of the system and its leadership have pointed to a pattern of elevating loyalists, political allies and personal friends to top positions throughout the UNC System and its 17 campuses. Its governing board has given UNC System President Peter Hans expanded powers to personally choose finalists in chancellor searches, potentially bypassing the search system and preferences of local boards of trustees.

In 2022, Hans also disregarded decades-long norms and precedents in appointing long-time WRAL anchor and friend David Crabtree the new CEO of PBS NC, bypassing a national search that had already been announced and dismissing the need for any competitive process for choosing the organization’s new leader.

Political interference in university governance reached the point in 2022 that even some of the most conservative political appointees on the UNC Board of Governors felt compelled to call it out. In July, several members publicly condemned the General Assembly’s mandate that the system move from its traditional home in Chapel Hill to the seat of political power in Raleigh as unnecessary, against the advice of its governing board, and an example of lawmakers undermining system leadership and their own appointees.

As that move to Raleigh proceeds this year and new leadership positions open across the system and its campuses, Policy Watch will continue to follow the story.

3. The advance of Christian Nationalism in NC Politics

For the past few years, Policy Watch has documented the growth of the American Renewal Project, a Christian Nationalist group that rejects a separation between church and state and works to encourage conservative Christian fundamentalist pastors to run for office. Its North Carolina arm, the NC Renewal Project, preaches that Christian doctrine should be mandated in public schools and hosts speakers who attack LGBTQ people, non-Christians holding elected office and even Christian churches they find insufficiently conservative.

Once a fringe movement within the state GOP, the group has strengthened its bonds with elected Republicans in the last few years, counting among its supporters former U.S. Representatives Mark Walker and Madison Cawthorn and former Lt. Governor Dan Forest. While all those politicians were either rejected by voters or failed in attempts at higher office, the group still has two powerful allies — current Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party. Last October, Policy Watch reported on both men’s speeches before Renewal Project audiences across the state.

“I don’t need to be liked,” Robinson told one such audience in October, saying he is encouraged and fueled by those who don’t like him as they are mostly undesirable and even dangerous people he’s proud to count as enemies.

But Robinson does need a majority of voters across the state to like him if he is serious about becoming North Carolina’s governor — an ambition he teased throughout 2022 and on which he now says he is laser focused.

Can his fiery anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, bizarre alternate history lessons and calls to fellow Christians to threaten violence against those they oppose pave the way to the GOP nomination? Will a more moderate but still strongly conservative figure such as State Treasurer Dale Folwell have more appeal? Policy Watch will follow the progress of Christian nationalist groups, their adherents and standard bearers in the new year.

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.