The S.C. Senate abruptly adjourned Thursday, blocking a vote on a proposed Berkeley County bathroom ban that opponents said could cost the state jobs and federal money.
Senators quit work for the week as state leaders – including Gov. Nikki Haley, Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt and Education Superintendent Molly Spearman – urged the issue of bathroom use in Berkeley schools be decided at the local level.
The proposal by state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, would require Berkeley students to use bathrooms based on the gender on their birth certificate. The Senate gave the second of three required approvals to the local legislation Wednesday.
Minority party Democrats argued to halt the bill Thursday and appeared on the verge of failing. However, a senior Republican — state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland — ended the debate by calling for the Senate to adjourn, a motion that passed with heavy Democratic support.
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"I just find it interesting that a majority of the Senate would rather adjourn than allow me to put a policy back into place,” Grooms said afterward.
The issue of bathroom use has exploded as divisive nationally since North Carolina passed a law that critics say discriminates against transgender people. In the wake of that law, North Carolina has been threatened with the loss of federal education money and seen some companies cancel their plans to expand in that state.
S.C. business-recruiting and education leaders were at the State House Thursday, lobbying against Grooms’ bill.
S.C. Education Superintendent Spearman said she was pleased the Senate delayed action. That could give the Berkeley school district the chance to handle the issue.
“This issue is best decided by local leadership and local standards," said Chaney Adams, spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Haley. “The governor doesn't want Washington or Columbia to tell the Berkeley County school board members what to do.”
Efforts to pass a statewide bathroom ban, sponsored by state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, failed earlier this month. The S.C. Chamber of Commerce and Gov. Haley opposed Bright’s proposal.
Grooms’ proposal revived the issue — and in a sensitive location.
The state pledged more than $200 million to land a new Volvo auto plant, now under construction, for Berkeley. Eventually, that plant is projected to employ 4,000.
However, state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, told senators Thursday that Grooms’ proposal threatened the state’s ability to attract new jobs as well as hundreds of millions in federal education money.
After the Senate adjourned, Commerce Secretary Hitt — the state’s top jobs hunter — said the bathroom issue could have a statewide impact.
“We would just like to have a wide discussion about it,” Hitt said.
Hitt said he has spent time explaining the bathroom-ban issue, which has made headlines across the Southeast, to employers in other countries. "We attract a lot of companies from other countries where these issues are seen differently.”
Hitt said he and Haley sell South Carolina to business prospects as being a small community.
“We know each other,” Hitt said. “When we have a conflict, we are able to sit and reason about it and come up with a good solution. ... I would say that happened today in this chamber."
Grooms said he met Thursday morning with Hitt, Spearman and representatives of Haley’s office, adding they expressed concerns over the way his bill might be perceived.
"I let them know I’m not really interested in perception, I’m interested in the actual policy," said Grooms, who faces opposition in the June 14 GOP primary.
The bathroom issue is not likely to come up when the Berkeley school board meets Tuesday, said board chairman Jim Hayes.
The district does not have a specific bathroom policy, adding few school districts do, Hayes said.
He added the social norm — of males using male-designated restrooms and females using female-designated restrooms — has been followed. However, schools have handled special situations on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Less than 10 days remain in the school year, Hayes noted, adding the the U.S. Supreme Court could rule on the issue over the summer.
"Our direction will come (from) the courts."