Jacksonville Panel Weighs LGBT-Inclusive HRO, Religious Freedom
On Thursday evening, hundreds of people packed the bleachers of the Edward Waters auditorium. It was the second community meeting Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry held to examine the inclusiveness of the city’s human rights ordinance, and clergy were the focus.
The question raised Thursday was whether a human rights ordinance that protects Jacksonville’s LGBT community and people who identify or express themselves outside of the heterosexual norm, also protect religious freedoms?
Attendee Forest Lowery says he’s against the city adding anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people.
“God loves all people. He doesn’t hate any of them,” Lowery said. “But he does not condone sin. He’s the same yesterday, today and forever. He changes not. And people are trying to change the laws of God as well as the laws of man.”
In 2012, the Jacksonville City Council defeated a bill that would have given protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in employment, housing and public accommodations.
Today, people are protected on the basis of race, sex and age. But they can legally be kicked out of restaurants and denied housing because of their sexual orientation, or how they identify or express their gender.
Sitting directly behind Lowery was Emily Petrs. She’s a transgender lesbian and says she just wants to be treated fairly in public and guaranteed to keep a job she’s qualified for despite the fact she identifies as a gay woman.
“It’s the same for a church. If they’re not accepting, I’m not asking them to be,” Petrs said. “I’m not seeking to infringe on them, and I don’t think anybody else is. I don’t think their rights or freedoms are going to be infringed upon. I think they’re scared for no reason.”
There’s no bill drafted yet to include LGBT protections in Jacksonville’s human rights ordinance. But the bill that failed to pass in 2012 exempted religious institutions.
Attorney Roger Gannam is with Liberty Counsel, an organization dedicated to preserving religious liberty. He was a panelist at Thursday’s community forum and says those religious exemptions are not airtight.
“Often when a church allows for any of its facilities to be used for the general public, they’re deemed a public accommodation for those purposes, and that brings the full coverage of a non-discrimination law on top of that church,” he said.
But another panelist, Jacksonville Rabbi Joshua Lief, says religious organizations are already protected under the current human rights ordinance, and adding more protections would work the same way.
“My dear friend Felipe Estevez, our bishop of the entire Diocese of St. Augustine, thousands of Catholics in our community, does not have to hire a single woman to be a priest at any one of his parish churches, and he’s not in violation of the law,” Lief said. “In any other industry, that’d be blatant discrimination. Because they’re a church, it isn’t.”
Mayor Curry’s final HRO forum is later this month. The topic is “understanding the law and its effects on businesses.”