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As Jacksonville Debates LGBT Bill, Similar Proposal Stalls In Florida Legislature

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As the Jacksonville City Council debates bills dealing with LGBT discrimination, a similar proposal in the Florida Legislature has died.

When the bill that stalled in a Senate committee Monday, a procedural move gave it another chance at life Tuesday—to no avail.

"We are still deadlocked," Sen. Joseph Abruzzo (D- Boynton Beach) and sponsor of the bill (SB 120), said Tuesday. "I believe we need to move it forward, but we do not have the votes at the present time."

The Senate Judiciary Committee then tabled the measure — known as the "Competitive Workforce Act"—meaning that its chances are likely nil for this legislative session.

The House version of the bill (HB 45), filed by Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo), has not been heard in House committees.

The proposal would update the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992 to add protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the workplace, housing and other public accommodations. It has long been floated in the Capitol, though Monday's Senate Judiciary Committee was the first time it had drawn a hearing.

But the panel's boisterous two-hour hearing on Monday showed fierce opposition to the proposal from the religious right—mostly on the question of public accommodations such as rest rooms and locker rooms.

The biggest sticking point seemed to be the fear that allowing transgender women to use women’s restrooms could allow male sex predators to pose as women and enter unchallenged.

It’s a fear commonly expressed by Jacksonville opponents of a city bill adding the same protections.

Last week, First Timothy Baptist Church pastor Fred Newbill said, “Keep the men out of women’s restrooms. Keep the men out of women’s showers” as he was speaking out against the Jacksonville bill.

Abruzzo added that he'd met with "the pastors" Tuesday without getting their support.

"I understand where they are coming from," he said. "But at the end of the day, I know even they believe that they don't want people to be discriminated against."

Senators had little objection to the bill's provisions dealing with jobs and housing, Abruzzo noted.

Committee Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R-Miami), said a second vote on the bill Tuesday would result in the same 5-5 tie as the day before.

Nevertheless, Monday's meeting was farther than the proposal had gotten in roughly a decade.

"I want to thank very much those individuals that haven't had their voice heard in this process," Sen. Jeremy Ring ( D-Margate), said. "You may not get where you're going to get this year. (But) you opened the door to a discussion … and you've made it further than a lot of groups have made it in 10 years."

The bill has been backed by business interests, who contend that they lose hundreds of millions of dollars due to the state's lack of workforce and housing protections for LGBT workers. Companies such as Florida Blue, AT&T, Walt Disney World Resort, CSX, Tech Data Corp., Darden Restaurants, NextEra Energy, Office Depot, Marriott and Wells Fargo support the proposal.

Patrick Slevin, manager of the campaign for the proposal, thanked Diaz de la Portilla for giving the bill its first hearing.

"We are proud to have had this pro-business legislation heard before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and to have secured strong support from Republicans and Democrats on this pro-business issue," Slevin said in a statement. "We will continue to educate elected officials that in order for our state to remain competitive in the global marketplace, we must eliminate any and all discrimination in the workplace, in housing and in public accommodations. We are confident that Florida leaders will do the right thing and end this state sanctioned discrimination."

The Jacksonville City Council is expected to vote on the measure next month. Jacksonville is the only large Florida city without similar protections. 

© 2016 The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved.

Jessica Palombo supervises local news gathering and production, podcasts and web editorial content for WJCT News, ADAPT and Jacksonville Today. She is an award-winning writer and journalist with bylines including NPR, Experience Magazine, and The Gainesville Sun. She has a master’s degree in broadcast and digital journalism from Syracuse University and is an alumna of the University of Florida. A nearly lifelong resident of Jacksonville, she considers herself lucky to be raising her own children in her hometown. Follow Jessica Palombo on Twitter: @JaxJessicaP