Refined HRO Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Makes It Through First City Council Committee

Jun 1, 2020

The refined Jacksonville Human Rights Ordinance that prohibits discrimination against people based on gender identity and sexual orientation made it through it’s first City Council committee Monday afternoon. 

At the Neighborhoods, Community Services, Public Health and Safety Committee, the legislation passed by a vote of 5 to 2. Councilman and committee chair Randy White, along with Councilman Samuel Newby, were the two “no” votes. 

The five “yes” votes came from Matt Carlucci, Rory Diamond, Reggie Gaffney, Brenda Priestly Jackson, and Joyce Morgan. 

“Thank you to the five of you who support life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” said Councilman Aaron Bowman. 

Bowman introduced a substitute in the legislation, which defines what a religious institution is and its exemptions from the HRO, along with codifying that employers can still create single-sex restrooms and other private facilities. It also codifies that an employer can still have a dress code, as long as the dress code is not based on gender stereotypes.   

The updated bill with the added substitution was not yet available on the city’s legislative bill search at the time of this story’s publication. 

The reason the bill is back in the hands of the City Council is because a Florida District Court of Appeals decided the way the original ordinance was passed violated state and city laws.

Some Council members, including Brenda Priestly Jackson and Garrett Dennis, questioned why the changes came in the form of a substitute rather than an amendment. They are worried that this could potentially make it easier for a court to strike it down again if the process isn’t done correctly. 

“I want all eyes dotted and T's crossed,” Priestly Jackson said. “I don't want to give anyone else any basis to have this back before us three months, six months, nine months in whatever fashion.”

Bowman and Office of General Counsel Legislative Affairs and Managing Deputy Peggy Sidman told the committee that they felt comfortable moving the bill along with a substitute, as it would be a sound and effective approach that could put the new language in the bill, rather than separately in an amendment.

Councilman Al Ferraro said he believes there should be a straw ballot vote taken by Jacksonville residents to determine who wants to make the changes to the HRO, and who is still against expanding the parameters of the Human Rights Ordinance.

According to Sidman, Ferraro’s approach would strike down the current HRO, and put it to a voter’s referendum in November for the City Council to get a better understanding of total support for the change. After that, the Council would introduce new legislation. 

“This bill makes it to where if you're supportive of it, you're for the people, and if you're not supportive of it, you want all these horrible things to happen to people,” Ferraro said. 

Ferraro said his main issue with the bill is that it restricts religious groups. 

“I feel like the government is telling religious groups of what they can do or what they can't do, which is a small part of what happens when we start having tyranny start,” Ferraro said.

Councilman Matt Carlucci countered the argument.

“I don't want people getting the idea that this affects religious institutions. It does not,” Carlucci said. “They are protected. The same way that this bill protects the rights of people that might be a little different than others. It's not giving people additional rights, just protecting rights.”

Wendy Byndloss, the head of the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, said there have five workplace discrimination lawsuits filed, and two based on housing discrimination since the original law was passed in 2017. 

Councilwoman Joyce Morgan asked the Office of General Counsel if there was any prediction on the chances the bill will make it through the courts this time. 

“We've got an opinion from a court that says these are the defects that you have with your HRO and that's what this bill is intended to fix, those defects,” said Jason Teal with OGC. “There may be grounds on constitutional grounds, or freedom of religion or something that has to do with the substance of the HRO that we may see coming out of this. I don't know, I can't predict that.”

The bill still needs to be heard by the Finance Committee and Rules Committee before going before the full Council. Both will hear it on Tuesday, June 2.

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.