For the past five years, local activists, clergy and regular people in Jacksonville, Florida, pushed the city to outlaw discrimination against LGBT people. And for the past five years, the City Council denied them. Until this week.
On Valentine’s Day, the council passed an amendment expanding Jacksonville’s human rights ordinance. The amendment will protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from being fired or denied housing because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Reveal reported on the fight for the amendment in a January episode, which actually began back in 2012. One of the drafters of the original bill, Tom Serwatka, now vice president at the University of North Florida, said he knew at the time that the bill would offend what he called a “vocal minority.”
That vocal minority included City Council members, prominent conservative Christian clergy and business owners. The opposition mobilized to defeat the bill twice in the past five years.
In the most recent battle, at one of several lengthy public hearings, dozens of opponents and supporters spoke before the City Council. Opponent Kathleen Perrera called the ordinance expansion “a sad comment on society at large” that would “grant special privileges to a deviant group.”
LGBT activists and their allies have said the bill is needed because there is no federal protection for LGBT people who are fired or denied housing because of their gender or sexual orientation. In Florida and most other states, there is no such state law, either. But individual cities and counties across the country have signed local bills into law, one place at a time.
Until the human rights ordinance amendment passed this week, Jacksonville was the last major city in Florida without protections for LGBT people.
Marshall Wood, a retired pilot and businessman, told Reveal in January that he opposed the bill because it threatens the religious freedom of Christians. He believes business owners should have the right not to hire a gay person if it goes against their faith. Citing the case of the Klein family, the Christian owners of an Oregon bakery who refused to bake a cake for a lesbian wedding in 2013, Wood said the bill would force Christians to go against their faith.
“It is morally reprehensible, in my view, that Americans who have a small business can be crucified by an HRO (human rights ordinance) amendment for which there is no need,” Wood said.
But civic leaders and the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce pushed for the amendment to pass. They argued the city needed it to stay competitive.
In Tuesday’s vote, the amendment passed 12-6 and included a clause that would exempt small businesses with 15 or fewer employees.
Wood says he doesn’t trust that clause will protect business owners. People in his circles who had opposed the bill and are “a little more militant” will keep fighting it, he said.
“I think we’re gonna find out this was a major error for Jacksonville,” he added.