Earlier this year, an attempt at expanding Jacksonville’s city human rights ordinance to include protection against discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexuality or gender identity was rescinded. At the time, the reason given for the move was the need to first address how to solve the city’s pension crisis.
That crisis was addressed in August by the city’s voters, who approved Mayor Lenny Curry’s pension plan, but still no progress has been made on the expanded HRO bill.
This wasn’t the first time the HRO debate had been moved to the backburner. An attempt in 2012 at expanding the ordinance was voted down by city council.
Following the withdrawal of the bill earlier this year, a coalition of local businesses united in support of an expanded HRO bill. Over 650 businesses have pledged their support, including big names like Everbank and the University of North Florida.
Additionally, over 180 community faith leaders have pledged their support, in an attempt to fight the reputation of religious groups as being less than friendly to LGBT causes.
Councilman Tommy Hazouri, who introduced the previous withdrawn bill, plans to re-introduce it sometime in the near future. However, given the opposition Hazouri faced last time, he may have to add even more concessions than before.
The previous bill exempted religious organizations, or organizations with less than 15 employees, from following the ordinance.
Luckily, the opposition to HRO expansion may finally be getting weaker. Pastor Kenneth Adkins, who was a vocal figure during the most recent debate and has had some particularly terrible things to say about the LGBT community, was recently indicted on charges of child molestation. Conservative church leaders also suffered a highly-publicized setback when their attempts to derail the Main and Six Brewing Co. project in Springfield failed.
With all of these factors at play, now may be the best possible time to introduce an expanded human rights ordinance bill.
The bill, in addition to its pledged support from businesses and faith leaders, will find support from local organizations specifically geared toward making an expanded HRO a reality – organizations like Jacksonville Coalition for Equality.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in Jacksonville over the last year towards full equality for LGBT residents and visitors,” said Dan Merkan, chairman of Jacksonville Coalition for Equality. “But there’s still work to be done.”
While the bill has a lot of support, it still won’t be an easy fight. Mayor Curry has made it clear that he doesn’t consider HRO expansion to be an important issue. The city council also voted overwhelmingly against the bill in 2012. Ronnie Fussell, best known for ending courthouse marriages in Duval County because he and his staff resented gay weddings, just won re-election as the county’s clerk of court.
The attitudes of hatred and ignorance are still present. First Coast LGBT allies are ready for the fight, though. No matter how difficult it may be, it’s something that must happen.
Jacksonville is the second-largest city in America without language in its city ordinance that bars discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity. It’s a fact that continues to embarrass the city. It also makes it look bad to potential businesses or planners of events, potentially resulting in lost revenue.
It’s no secret that intolerance drives away business. Indiana faced an enormous backlash when it passed legislation allowing businesses to refuse service to LGBT customers. When North Carolina did the same, a similar controversy arose. It even ended up costing Charlotte the rights to host the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.
Merkan sees the business value as well as the personal.
“Passing a fully-inclusive Human Rights Ordinance in Jacksonville to protect all LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations will not only give full equality to all citizens of Jacksonville,” Merkan says, “but it also will increase our city’s competitiveness by sending the message to companies and sports organizations that Jacksonville is open for business and does not tolerate any type of discrimination.”
As the city’s LGBT population grows, the issue will only become more pressing. As more businesses add their support and more controversies erupt around the nation, the pressure will mount to make a move in the interest of protecting the city’s ability to attract businesses and events.
It’s a pretty shitty way for the fight to end, with the results potentially being dictated by the city’s instinct for self-preservation rather than genuine compassion for fellow residents.
At this point, though, we may just have to accept progress in any way we can get it.
Want to get involved?
If you want to help advance the cause of addressing the expansion of our human rights ordinance, visit jaxequality.org for volunteering information.
(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to Kenneth Adkins as a member of Mayor Curry’s HRO committee. Adkins was actually just a panelist selected by opponents of the HRO expansion, and was vocal in his opposition.)