Monday morning saw the first of three Jacksonville City Council committees approve the latest attempt to expand the Human Rights Ordinance.
The vote was 4-2.
The measure would extend protections in housing, public accommodations, and employment on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
As well, the bill offered in its original form carve out employment protections for businesses with fewer than 15 employees, and for owners of owner-operated rental homes and four unit buildings.
As you will read below, an amendment was passed allowing such protections for businesses with fewer than 50 employees … a measure which speaks to a fragmentation in the process.
The bill also exempts some religious organizations such as churches, synagogues, mosques, religious schools, and affiliated non-profits.
Despite the attempt to produce a clean bill, there were questions even before discussion started.
The agenda for the meeting of the Monday Morning Neighborhoods, Community Investments, and Services committee noted that the “legislation is brief” and that “thorough discussion” was recommended in committee.
Thorough discussion happened — though the bulk of it dealt with a substitute bill advanced by Councilman Bill Gulliford, drafted in the hours before the meeting.
The substitute ultimately failed, with just two votes in support after a lot of discussion.
Gulliford’s sub included changes such as “gender identity” to “transgender identity.”
“One of the big problems,” Gulliford said, is “the number of different gender identities out there.”
Religious organizations would become a “broader” definition, Gulliford said, including such as homeless shelters.
“What I’m attempting to do,” Gulliford said, “is to make it as acceptable to all parties as possible … a serious attempt to try to end up in a place where both sides may feel a little better about it.”
“The big issues are the bathroom issue, the religious liberty issue, and the impact to small businesses,” Gulliford said.
Gulliford also referred to a letter of opposition from the Diocese of St. Augustine, which invoked the principle of “conscientious objection” to laws perceived to be unjust.
Among the features of the bill: a person being exempted from the bill if he or she is acting in accordance with a religious belief, including a belief that marriage is between one man and one woman — a provision that runs counter to federal anti-discrimination laws.
Council VP John Crescimbeni wondered if this substitute conflicted with Florida Statute, federal or state law.
The office of general counsel had no answer.
Council President Lori Boyer noted that the substitute bill would require a re-referral.
Councilman Greg Anderson took issue with Gulliford coining a term “transgender identity,” which Gulliford said was a “way to avoid a lot of argument” and “be more definitive.”
“I’ve done a lot of research on this. I’ve never seen it before,” Anderson noted.
Councilman Tommy Hazouri noted the conflict between Gulliford’s substitute and federal law.
Councilman Jim Love, a bill co-sponsor, noted also that worries of lawsuits and assaults — a specter raised by HRO expansion opponents — did not come to pass in Tampa, a city to which Jacksonville is losing jobs and economic opportunity.
As did many of his colleagues, Love opposed the bill substitute.
Love also noted that 50 percent of the state was protected by legislation barring discrimination on sexual orientation and gender identity grounds.
Responding to the substitute, bill sponsor Aaron Bowman noted that there were 30,000 service officers in Jacksonville, with 85 percent required to live outside the gates because of a lack of housing.
“A portion” of that group is divested of rights once off their base, Bowman said, especially given the military offering protections to the LGBT community.
Bowman also noted that, out of the emails he’d received on the subject, he found that out of over 3,000 emails, 2,768 support the legislation.
“That’s a 10 to 1 ratio,” Bowman said, adding later that in other cities, “the world hasn’t stopped” because of this legislation.
Councilman Tommy Hazouri, another bill sponsor, noted his contention that the council has a duty to move the bill through committees and vote on it next week.
Gulliford had his say, of course, and stood by his substitute.
Councilman Garrett Dennis, meanwhile, asserted that the current bill is just “words on paper” because the aggrieved party “has nowhere to go to report, to complain” for relief.
The general counsel’s office described recourse, through the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, which includes “conciliation” between the parties and a potential cause finding that could assert grounds for actionable grievance.
Among the potential penalties: a $500 fine and a 90 day jail stretch.
Dennis noted that the director position, which would be necessary for enforcement, is currently unfunded; he has a bill (2016-35) to rectify that.
“This bill doesn’t go far enough in protecting who we already have and who we’re trying to add,” Dennis said.
Notable: the vast majority of complaints the JHRC hears are employment complaints related to medium-sized businesses, with 1 percent of them driven by public accommodations such as bathrooms.
Some complaints are filed by “frequent fliers,” described by JHRC Director Charlene Taylor-Hill as people who complain repeatedly.
In other jurisdictions, said the JHRC director, the addition of SOGI protections has not led to the need for additional staff.
Councilman Doyle Carter noted that the extended process of inquiry hurts the “little guy, who does not have the resources” for a lengthy JHRC investigation.
However, that burden exists now.
Councilman Gulliford, feeling a loss coming on, got fired up.
Gulliford noted that in Houston, legislation was repealed by citizen referendum.
“You have to anticipate the worst of situations that may arise,” Gulliford said, noting that liberties are being granted to one group at the expense of another.
Councilman Hazouri said “this is not a bathroom bill like it was in Houston,” noting that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office agreed with him.
“This bill is voted on on Valentine’s Day. Will it be Happy Valentine’s Day or a Valentine’s Day Massacre?”
The Gulliford substitute was dispatched, but amendments were offered to chip away at the bill.
One amendment: to increase the number of employees a small business could have for purposes of exemption from the sexual orientation/gender identity provisions to 50, which contravenes federal statute from the EEOC, leaving the city exposed to litigation.
That amendment passed 4-2, with Garrett Dennis joining Doyle Carter, Bill Gulliford, and Joyce Morgan in support.
Council VP John Crescimbeni thundered that “this creates a two-tier system,” allowing discrimination against LGBT people that would be otherwise barred by the bill.
“That’s insane,” Crescimbeni said.
Hazouri said “we have to be consistent with what we do, just like we have to be consistent with what our sexuality is.”
From there, discussion moved toward the meta-discourse realm, with Councilman Dennis wanting to know how the city can “regulate a private business.”
“How in the world do we regulate it here in this city,” Dennis said.
Gulliford voiced his opposition to the measure again, calling it “onerous” toward those who oppose these “burdens of laws,” with potential for “frivolous enforcement” due to the malleability of the “gray area of proof.”
Despite those caveats, the bill passed 4-2. And Dennis supported it.
Speaking after the meeting, Councilman Dennis discussed his thought process on the bill, including backing the amendment that seems to create tiers of permissible discrimination.
“I spoke to a few business owners,” Dennis said, and “their sweet spot is around 50” employees.
Dennis believes that protections should be “consistent across the board,” and suggested that maybe he “misunderstood” the amendment he voted for.
Dennis is also coy about where he stands on the bill.
“No one has gotten a yes or no out of me,” Dennis said. “I still have a couple of days to figure out” a position.
Dennis suggested that one way forward may to be raise the threshold of actionable discrimination to companies with 50 employees across the board, which means that the full human rights ordinance — and not just the proposed addition — would be out of compliance with EEOC guidelines.
However, “the LGBT plight is totally different” from the experience of African-Americans, Dennis added.
The next committee stop for this bill: Rules on Tuesday afternoon.
The chair: Garrett Dennis.