Updated Friday 2/4 at 9:30 a.m.
Jacksonville City Councilman Bill Gulliford said he’s planning to introduce an option for the public to vote on whether the city's’ human rights ordinances should protect LGBT people.
Gulliford announced his plans at a special City Hall meeting Thursday, where he invited speakers to discuss issues with a human-rights bill already moving through the council.
Gulliford began the meeting by stating he’s not a “bigot, hater or homophobe” but wants to discuss issues and questions with the HRO bill set to be voted on in committees next week.
It would add LGBT protections to the city’s anti-discrimination laws that already protect people on the basis of characteristics like religion and race.
The speakers commented on how they believe the bill would infringe on small business owners’ and nonprofit heads’ religious liberty if they don’t want to serve LGBT people.
Of the six who spoke, two live out of town. Roger Gannam, a former Jacksonville resident, is an attorney with the Orlando-based nonprofit Liberty Counsel, which boasts of helping defeat similar HRO bills in Jacksonville in years past. Palm Coast resident Charlene Cothran, a former lesbian activist, said God transformed her lifestyle.
A couple of their concerns are with exemptions in the bill. For instance, businesses with fewer than 15 employees would be allowed to discriminate against LGBT people in hiring, but if the business is, say, a restaurant, it would still have to serve them. Jason Gabriel with the city’s Office of General Counsel confirms that.
“To the extent that there’s any business out there, no matter how big or small, that opens themselves up to the public, the ordinance would be applicable,” Gabriel said.
Religious institutions would also be exempt, but what about religious nonprofits unaffiliated with specific places of worship? That was the question from lawyer and speaker Jim Radloff, who is board of directors president of a Christian women’s help center.
Gabriel says he’d research that and provide council members a definition of “religious institutions.”
And though his church would be exempt, First Baptist of Jacksonville Associate Pastor Heath Lambert said he opposes LGBT protections in any circumstance, based on his religious conscience.
“The passage of this ordinance would be the decision to pick a favorite, to choose the convictions of one member of our community over the convictions of another and to discriminate with the force of law,” Lambert said.
Previous Supreme Court rulings have found laws to not be in violation of religious liberty, as long as they’re not specifically targeting a single religion, according to Florida Coastal School of Law Professor Greg Pingree.
Attorney Jimmy Midyette with the LGBT-advocacy group Jacksonville Coalition for Equality also sat in on the meeting and says he didn’t hear any convincing arguments.
”The folks in there who are saying that it’s going to cause all sorts of unintended consequences,the reality is that over 20 states and over 250 municipalities in the country have this very law on the books, and it has led to increased opportunity,” Midyette said.
As for Gulliford’s referendum, he didn’t say when he’d ask council members to consider it.
Gulliford introduced an HRO referendum bill last year too, but it was withdrawn along with a similar HRO bill that wouldn't require a referendum.
Councilman Reggie Brown said Thursday he would not support a referendum, but Councilman Sam Newby said he would.
The original bill, sponsored by Councilmen Tommy Hazouri, Jim Love and Aaron Bowman, is set for a council vote on Feb. 14.
Interested in the conversation about the Jacksonville HRO? Join us for a live television show, “Community Thread: LGBT Rights on the First Coast” at WJCT Studios on Feb 8.
Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.