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Jacksonville passes HRO expansion, secures LGBT rights

The skinny: Almost five years after it was first put up for a council vote, Jacksonville’s legislators finally passed an expansion of the city’s Human Rights Ordinance on Tuesday.

The bill passed 12-6, with Councilmen Matt SchellenbergSam Newby, Danny Becton, Bill Gulliford, Doyle Carter, and Al Ferraro in opposition.

The HRO expansion offers long-awaited protections of the city’s LGBT community … if the mayor doesn’t veto it. If the mayor does veto the bill, the council would have to vote to override the measure.

The expansion would add sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to the list of protected categories under the ordinance, which ensures that people aren’t discriminated against in the workplace, the housing market, or public accommodations (restrooms, locker rooms, and so on).

Mayor Lenny Curry returned the bill to the city council without his signature; the bill is now law.

“As your Mayor, I promised to convene community conversations about discrimination. At the conclusion of those conversations, I exercised an executive action to implement a clear policy for City of Jacksonville employees and contractors. I said then and continue to believe additional legislation was unnecessary. But this evening, a supermajority of the City Council decided otherwise. This supermajority, representatives of the people from both parties and every corner of the city, made their will clear,” Curry said in a statement.

“Now, with the issue resolved, I invite City Council and all the people of Jacksonville to join me as we confront serious issues like the final steps of pension reform to bring us financial security and increase our efforts to end the violence and crime hurting innocent people in our city,” Curry added.

Supporters went into the vote confident that the council would pass the bill; however, the amendment process was worth watching, with two amendments (one to remove transgender people from protections, and another to remove the prospect of jail time for those who violate the ordinance).

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Religious Exemption: As discussion began of the ordinance, the first major talking point was the religious exemption.

General Counsel Jason Gabriel discussed what would make an organization a religious organization, allowing it to be exempt from the legislation.

Gabriel, outlining the potential room for interpretation, noted the ultimate arbiter would be the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission.

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No Jail: After that, Scott Wilson advanced an amendment striking jail time as a potential penalty for violating the HRO.

That was a concern in one committee.

The amendment was unanimously approved.

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Referendum redux: Then, a second amendment from Bill Gulliford, to amend the bill and make it effective based on a charter referendum in 2018.

Gulliford had advanced this in committee.

The Beaches Republican noted division in the community on this issue.

“This may go down in flames … but I submit to you a referendum is the only way this issue will end,” Gulliford said, noting that legislation can always be introduced to tweak the bill after passage.

Gulliford asserted, meanwhile, that the idea that civil rights would not have passed referendum was unprovable.

This got a gasp from the crowd, but Gulliford persisted, insisting that opponents of the referendum may be “afraid to trust the people.”

Councilman Brown took the opposing view from Gulliford, urging that a referendum be a state issue.

“I would not have been confident that in 1864,” a referendum would have been passed “that black people should be free,” Brown said, drawing a burst of applause from the crowd.

“Let’s make the hard decision — and let the chips fall where they may,” Brown added.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri, the leading vote recipient in the May 2015 election, noted that he was elected to pass the HRO.

Councilman Al Ferraro saw a difference between the HRO and civil rights legislation, with people potentially losing “freedom of speech.”

“I’m not against anybody who’s gay or transgender or anything like that,” Ferraro said, adding that a “business will go broke because they’re innocent, just because of the financial burden.”

“This is a bad bill because of the way it’s written,” Ferraro added. “I do believe everybody’s equal … [but] the bill is going to harm people.”

“The Chamber is telling us,” Ferraro added, that there would be consequences if the bill doesn’t pass.

Councilman Danny Becton, another expansion opponent, bemoaned council members talking about emails and cards on the issue.

“All that to sway your vote. What is that? It’s a referendum,” Becton said.

The referendum failed 13-5, with Newby, Becton, Gulliford,  Carter, and Ferraro in opposition.

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Closed Companies = Closed Minds?: Becton floated a second amendment, to exempt “closed” companies from this law.

“Anybody who is 100 percent in ownership of their business,” Becton said.

Councilman Hazouri said the Becton amendment would “emasculate” the bill.

Ferraro told Hazouri he didn’t know what it was like to start a business.

“These small business cannot take and afford — the lawsuits are going to go left and right,” Ferraro added.

Councilman Jim Love, a bill sponsor, noted that such lawsuits are not happening in Tampa and Orlando.

“We need to get this done now,” Love said, noting that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told him that Tampa had an advantage over Jacksonville because of this bill not having passed yet.

The Becton amendment failed 13-5, along the same lines as the previous amendment.

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No-T Time: Bill Gulliford wasn’t done. He sought a reboot of the compromise bill from 2012, which struck “the transgender issue” from the legislation.

“Why not expand it on feelings? I can feel like I’m 23, and ask people to bake me a cake, and if they don’t do that, I can sue them?”

“Feeling but not fact is a bad way to pursue this,” Gulliford said.

Reggie Brown, who voted against the bill in 2012, spoke as a member of the military.

“We need to take a page out of the military,” Brown said. “[Transgender] people will fight for the flag … some will die for the flag … and that’s just the way it is.”

“When I listen to the recommendations to leave out one particular part of the population,” Brown said, “I’m concerned.”

“If they’re willing to die for you … why would we leave any soldier out?”

The amendment failed 13-5, with the same people on the losing end.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades, with bylines in national and local publications alike on subjects ranging from pop music to national and global politics. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014, and has held a column in Jacksonville, Florida's Folio Weekly for two decades. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." Gancarski is a frequent presence on Jacksonville television and radio, including fill-in slots on WJCT-FM's award-winning talk show "First Coast Connect." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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