By Steve Harrison

After more than three hours of public comment and debate, the Charlotte City Council approved Monday new legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender residents _ a decision that will likely provoke a battle with the General Assembly, which could nullify the city's historic vote.

Council members approved expanding the city's existing nondiscrimination ordinance in a 7-4 vote.

The decision elicited cheers and hugs from supporters, many carrying signs that read, "Facts Not Fear." Opponents of the ordinance, many with signs that read, "Don't Do It Charlotte," were upset by the decision.

The changes mean businesses in Charlotte can't discriminate against gay, lesbian or transgender people, in addition to long-standing protections based on race, age, religion and gender. The ordinance applies to places of public accommodation, such as bars, restaurants and stores. It also applies to taxis.

The most controversial part of the ordinance would allow transgender residents to use either a men's or women's bathroom, depending on the gender of which they identify.

The bathroom provision sparked the most opposition, with opponents mostly worried about the safety of women and girls in a public bathroom with people who were born male. Supporters said those fears were overblown, and that transgender people are at risk of violence in the bathroom.

In an email Sunday, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said the bathroom provision would likely cause "immediate" action by legislators.

In North Carolina, the General Assembly has the ultimate power over municipalities. Legislators could strike down the entire ordinance, or they could eliminate the provision that allows for bathroom flexibility. They also could send the issue for voters to decide in a referendum.

Council members have acknowledged that Raleigh may trump their decision Monday. But supporters said it was important to pass an expanded ordinance.

A year ago, the ordinance failed in a 6-5 vote.

But two new at-large members _ Julie Eiselt and James Mitchell _ were elected to the council in November, and both supported the ordinance.

Democrat Al Austin voted for the ordinance.

"Are we a city that panders to fear and hate to those who wish to perpetuate fear and injustice?" Austin asked. "I say to you, 'Not on my watch.' "

Democrat Patsy Kinsey, who voted for the ordinance, likened the ordinance's passage to her efforts more than a decade ago to bring domestic partner benefits to same-sex city employees.

Republican Ed Driggs voted against the ordinance. He said the bathroom provision is troubling.

"Everyone is required to use the bathroom of their gender _ you can't get more equal than that," Driggs said. "It's not the back of the bus."

Driggs was joined by Democrats Claire Fallon and Greg Phipps, and Republican Kenny Smith in voting no.

Earlier this year, Fallon said she would vote for the ordinance. She said she couldn't support the bathroom provision Monday.

The council's main chamber, which holds 250 people, was closed by the Fire Department because it reached capacity. The city placed people in overflow rooms in the government center, and other people had filled the outdoor plaza behind the building.

Shortly before 7 p.m., the council began hearing from 140 speakers.

Earlier, Franklin Graham, head of Billy Graham Envangelistic Association, urged Christians to come to Monday's meeting and speak against the proposed ordinance.

He said the bathroom provision is "wicked and it's filthy."

The expanded ordinance would be the first of its kind in North Carolina.

It's unclear what the Republican-controlled Legislature would do, though they would have a number of options. They also would have almost unlimited power, and the ability to nullify all or parts of the city's nondiscrimination ordinance.

The city's ordinance will go into effect April 1.

Legislators start a new session in May.

(Staff writer Mark Price contributed to this report.)

(c)2016 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)