What Would An Updated Jacksonville Human Rights Ordinance Actually Do?

Jul 7, 2014

With Jacksonville's 2015 mayoral race underway, it's clear that the addition of protections for certain people under the city's Human Rights Ordinance will be an election issue. Here are the specifics of the HRO expansion bill that failed in 2012.

The Human Rights Ordinance

After months of discussion, re-writes, and voting, bill 2012-296, which would have expanded the Jacksonville Human Rights Ordinance to include sexual orientation, was rejected by the Jacksonville City Council by a vote of 10-9 in August 2012.

Immediately following this vote, the original bill, which included not only sexual orientation, but also gender identity or expression protections, also failed to pass with a much wider gap of 17-2.

Despite the failure of passage, many people in Jacksonville are still working to pass a bill of this sort.

What exactly does the language say?

The original bill would have prevented discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations, like restaurants and hotels.

Sexual orientation and gender identity or expression would have been added to a number of classes that are already protected. Race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age and disability are already included in the Jacksonville Human Rights Ordinance.

Employers who have fewer than 15 employees or religious institutions would have been exempt from the law.

What does “sexual orientation, gender identity or expression” mean?

Credit Wikimedia Commons

When the bill included sexual orientation, gender identity or expression it failed 17-2, but when the bill only included sexual orientation, it failed by just one vote, 10-9.

Greg Pingree, professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, said sexual orientation typically refers to the classifications of gay or lesbian, someone who is attracted to the same sex, while gender identity or expression can refer to a number of situations, such as people who are transgender, people who dress as the opposite sex or express themselves outside of the default heterosexual norm.

“I’ve taught sexual orientation in the law for the last three semesters,” Pingree said. “Just in that time my syllabus and the things we talk about have changed dramatically.”

He said instead of just covering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, there has been the addition of questioning, intersex and asexual. These would all be covered under the “sexual orientation, gender identity or expression” language in the bill.

Pingree said that the lack of votes for the bill that included gender identity or expression might be because people have said they feel more comfortable interacting with a gay man or lesbian woman, than a transgender person. He attributes this to the ability for a homosexual person to more easily pass as straight.

“A transgender person, someone who deeply feels that they have been born into the wrong body, and thus takes hormones and undergoes sex-change surgery, would have a more difficult time ‘passing’ in our society.” Pingree said. “That person will probably look more obviously like a woman dressing as a man, or vice-versa.”

He said that this difference seems to threaten and bother a lot of people, even some who have come to terms with mainstream homosexuality.

What protections would it provide?

The addition of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression to the human rights ordinance would protect people in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations, like restaurants and hotels.

Ada Hammond, assistant professor of professional skills at Florida Coastal School of Law, said that currently if a person tries to rent a hotel room, they can be denied service based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

“If I go to a restaurant and I want to be served but I’m told, ‘I’m sorry but you cannot be served at this restaurant because of your sexual orientation,’" Hammond said, “I would not have any protection against that in terms of being able to access the legal system to be able to redress that problem.”

The same goes for employment and housing, she said. People can be refused employment, fired from a job or denied a house based on their sexual or gender identity.

Aren't some of these protections already in federal law?

Discrimination against someone in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression in not protected under federal law.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says that you cannot discriminate against anyone in the areas housing, employment and public accommodations on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. Age and disability have since been added.

Pingree said pretty much every state has some version of Title VII on a state level and of those, some include the protection of sexual orientation, or sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

“I know for example in New Jersey, it involves not discriminating against people in the same way that Title VII does, but the legislation in that state decided to include sexual orientation,” Pingree said.

Florida does not have sexual orientation, gender identity or expression in the state version of Title VII.

Pingree said sometimes it then comes down to a local or city level.

What are the potential benefits of an updated HRO?

For people who consider themselves in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning community, they would be protected in terms of employment, housing and public accommodations.

Although discrimination for the classes of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression may be difficult to prove, Hammond said in her opinion the community should want a legal system that is able to address such issues.

Michael Binder, assistant professor of political science at the University of North Florida, said the bigger picture is the signal that passing the bill would have sent to the community and the rest of the country. He said businesses want to start-up in a place that is welcoming.

“Back when we failed to pass this in 2012, shortly after, a couple businesses that had been discussing coming here opted against it and one of the reasons that they indicated, was failure of the bill to pass,” Binder said. “It certainly casts a negative light on the city and it appears we are unwelcoming.”

Pingree said these additions to the law would make a difference to everyone because they are the on-the-ground laws that make a difference about whether discrimination in acceptable.

What about potential problems?

Hammond said a legitimate concern people might have over the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression is that it might trigger lawsuits.

“Businesses and employers don’t want to be sued,” Hammond said, “it’s expensive.”

Pingree said there is always an argument when opening up an existing way of doing things.

“I call it the slippery-slope or flood-gates argument,” Pingree said. “People say, ‘Hey, if we allow this to happen, then everybody’s going to start suing because they can jump in on it.’”

He said people might also argue that laws keep being expanded for more and more types of people, when does it stop?

Another issue, as with many discrimination cases, is they can be difficult to prove.

The person fighting would have to prove that they were discriminated against solely on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

Hammond said that generally speaking discrimination is not overt.

“You aren’t told, ‘I’m not renting this room to you because of your sexual orientation or you’re not allowed to be at this restaurant,’” Hammond said. “Instead you are told, ‘I’m sorry but you don’t have a reservation, we’re full,’ when that might not be the case.”

Similar issues in other local communities

In April, the Neptune Beach City Council voted 3-2 to support state legislation banning discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. No laws were changed, it is simply a vow of support.

There is a Human Rights Ordinance bill in Atlantic Beach that is likely to be voted on in the near future. The language is not yet final, but it would add sexual orientation and possibly gender identity or expression to the existing law, although that has not been finalized.

You can follow Lindsey Kilbride on Twitter @LindsKilbride