Jacksonville LGBT-Inclusive HRO Gets Green Light In Committee, With Major Change

Feb 6, 2017

 

Credit Ray Hollister / WJCT News

Updated 8:45 p.m. with additional information. 

A Jacksonville City Council committee voted Monday morning to recommend the full City Council vote yes on expanding the city’s human rights ordinances to protect LGBT people.

However, the Neighborhoods, Community Investments and Services Committee vote comes with a big change to the human rights bill 2017-15, regarding business exemptions.

Jacksonville's anti-discrimination laws protect people on the basis of characteristics like race and religion in the areas of housing, employment and public businesses. The HRO bill would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list.

Currently, city human rights ordinances come with exemptions. The anti-discrimination laws don't apply to small businesses with fewer than 15 employees when it comes to hiring. The  same goes for religious organizations in  hiring, housing and public accommodations. A church can decide against hiring someone based on their religious beliefs.

But the committee amended the definition of a small business in the HRO bill to “50 employees or fewer” when it comes to hiring LGBT people. That means businesses that employ up to 50 employees could refuse to hire someone based on their being gay or transgender.

Under the amended version of the bill, businesses with more than 14 employees could still be subject to a discrimination complaint if they refuse to hire someone based on race or religion.

The amendment passed 5-to-1 in the committee made up of six council members. Councilman John Crescembeni called the different standards for LGBT people versus other protected groups a “two-tiered system.”

He said, “That’s insane.”

Councilmember Joyce Morgan asked the committee to reconsider the amendment after the vote because she changed her mind, but her request to take another vote failed by a 3-to-3 vote.

At the end of the meeting, council members Morgan, Crescimbeni, Garrett Dennis and Scott Wilson voted in favor of expanding the city’s human rights ordinances with the employer amendment. Bill Gulliford and Doyle Carter voted not to recommend it.

A committee's vote is just a recommendation to the full council. Committees can add amendments, vote in favor or against a bill, or recommend it be withdrawn, but it’s up to the full council to decide whether to accept those recommendations.

The bill will go through the Rules and Finance committees this week before a final vote expected on Feb. 14 at the regular City Council meeting.

Gulliford’s Substitution

Gullford began Monday’s meeting by offering up a new bill in place of the current HRO bill working its way through committees, but it failed.

Gulliford said he won’t propose the substituted bill at other committees this week, but said that doesn’t prevent somebody else from introducing a substitute.

Gulliford called his substitute bill a compromise “that contains something for all sides not to like.”

It would have added sexual orientation and “transgender identity,” instead of “gender identity” to the city’s human rights ordinances.

His bill defined “transgender identity” as requiring a doctor’s diagnosis and requiring the person to have begun the process of medically transitioning from male to female or female to male.

The bill would have also exempted small businesses from serving LGBT people if they wanted to. Currently the exemption is limited to hiring.

And it would have broadened religious exemptions to business owners who sincerely believe marriage should be between and man and a woman or that gender is only decided at birth.

Businesses would have been allowed to deny service to a gay couple who wanted a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage, for example.

The original bill’s sponsors, Aaron Bowman, Jim Love and Tommy Hazouri, who aren’t on the Neighborhoods Committee, attended the meeting.

Bowman pleaded with the committee to vote against Gulliford’s substitute bill. He said of the thousand of emails he’s received regarding the the legislation, 2,768 wrote in favor of passing the current HRO bill compared to 319 emails against.

“The email data shows an overwhelmly support by a population to pass this legislation, and they’re looking forward to us as their elected leaders to put this issue behind us and move this city forward,” he said.

He said instead of “What-if”-ing this to death, look at other cities that have LGBT-inclusive HROs and no problems.

Gulliford said last week he planned to propose a referendum that would let the public vote on expanding the HRO, but he has yet to put one forward.

Religious Institutions

The committee Monday had a lot of questions about what religious organizations are exempt from having to comply with the HRO bill.  

It lists churches, synagogues, mosques, schools of religious instruction and non-profit institutions or organizations affiliated with them.

Gulliford asked “What about an organization that’s operated on religious principles, but is not affiliated with anything?”

He said operators of the City Rescue Mission religious homeless shelter are concerned about the bill.

“In terms of religious organizations, there is no bright-lined definition,” said Jason Gabriel with the Office of General Counsel. “What we do is, through hundreds of cases, we sort of synthesize factors, and we put in an organization or corporation and see what comes out.”

He said factors could include whether the entity is a nonprofit, if it produces a secular product or service, if it’s owned by a church or if it holds prayer services.

Councilwoman Morgan said with that in mind, she thinks City Rescue Mission and similar organizations would be exempt.

Gabriel did not comment on whether CRM would or wouldn't be exempt.

Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.