“We have rights, let’s party” was shouted over an intercom in Hemming Park Tuesday evening right outside Jacksonville’s city hall.
The City Council had just amended the city’s human rights ordinances to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination.
Rudy Alcantara and Robert Terrell stood in Hemming in tears as others danced to Beyonce around them. Alcantara said he and his partner are coming up on their 25th anniversary.
“First time coming down here … and it passed,” Alcantara said. “We’ve waiting a long time for this. I mean look at this. It validates us.”
Inside City Hall, Aaron Bowman, the bill’s sponsor, was also tearing up after the vote.
“This is a great opportunity for people to think now ‘why have I held these prejudices? Maybe I shouldn’t be doing that anymore.’ I really think this is going to strengthen our community.”
After the vote, Mayor Lenny Curry returned the bill unsigned, making it automatically become law. A year ago when a similar HRO bill was going through council, Curry said the legislation wouldn't have been prudent.
“I said then and continue to believe additional legislation was unnecessary,” Curry said. “ But this evening, a supermajority of the City Council decided otherwise. This supermajority, representatives of the people from both parties and every corner of the city, made their will clear.”
It’s the third time a similar bill has gone before Council in five years. The new law adds sexual orientation and gender identity to a list of protected characteristics, including race and religion in housing, hiring and public accommodations.
Bowman said he believes a number of factors contributed to the bill passing this time. He said he believes President Donald Trump is supportive of the LGBT population and people have also seen negative effects of North Carolina limiting LGBT protections. He also said he connected with religious and community leaders to get them on board with the bill.
The legislation passed with two amendments. One ensures violators can’t be punished with jail time. The other makes it more clear that along with churches and religious schools, some religious nonprofits will also be exempt from complying with the new law.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida issued a statement after the vote against the religious exemption.
“Jacksonville’s laws already ensure that religious organizations can conduct their religious activities as they see fit, and protecting LGBT people doesn’t change that,” said Kirk Bailey, ACLU spokesman. “But the exemption in the ordinance will allow a religiously-affiliated school to fire a gay janitor, or a religiously-affiliated homeless shelter to turn away a transgender person or a same-sex couple.”
The bill passed 12-6, with Councilwoman Katrina Brown absent at the vote.
Council members Greg Anderson, Aaron Bowman, Lori Boyer, Anna Lopez Brosche, Reggie Brown, John Crescimbeni, Garrett Dennis, Reggie Gaffney, Tommy Hazouri, Jim Love, Joyce Morgan and Scott Wilson voted in favor of the bill.
Council members Danny Becton, Doyle Carter, Al Ferraro, Bill Gulliford, Sam Newby and Matt Schellenberg voted no on the bill.
Of the no-votes, Gulliford has been among the most vocal. He offered two amendments that failed. One would have put LGBT discrimination on a ballot for the public to vote. The other would have excluded transgender people from the law by removing “gender identity” protections.
“I’d submit to you that if you polled this body 20 years ago they probably wouldn’t believe that we’d be debating and discussing and voting on this issue tonight,” he said.
Councilman Al Ferraro, a no vote, said the anti-discrimination law would hurt businesses.
“I’m not against anybody who’s gay or transgender or anything like that. I’m not against straight people. I’m not against blacks,” he said. “A business will go broke if they’re innocent just because they’re accused of this because of the financial burden.”
In 2012 a bill similar to Tuesday’s failed 17-2. A bill voted on that same night that protected people under the characteristic of sexual orientation, but not gender identity failed by one vote. Last year, an LGBT-inclusive HRO bill was withdrawn before a vote.
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Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.