November 11, 2016 – Jacksonville.com
by Christopher Hong
Gay rights advocates and prominent members of Jacksonville’s business and legal community are ramping up a new campaign to pass a law that protects gays and transgender people from discrimination.
After two failed attempts since 2012, supporters say they are organized like never before. They also plan to unveil a new strategy: working behind the scenes to convince at least 10 council members to support the legislation — the minimum majority needed to pass it — before anyone introduces a bill for the council to officially consider.
A group of supporters, including members of the JaxChamber board of directors and a local gay rights advocate, discussed the effort to pass the law with the Times-Union’s editorial board on Thursday.
The group says it’s pushing an “all-inclusive” law that bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. They’ve created a draft bill that seeks to address concerns voiced in previous debates about interfering with religious organizations and small businesses as well as bathroom safety.
Various supporters of the law plan to seek council members’ support in private, individual meetings and said they may change their legislation based on feedback they receive.
Privately lobbying council members to build support for an initiative is common practice. But as supporters and council members meet behind the scenes, they must also exercise caution to comply with Florida’s government transparency law that requires legislators to craft laws and policies in public meetings and prohibits third parties from privately relaying information between council members.
Audrey Moran, chairwoman of the JaxChamber board, told the Times-Union editorial board she and other supporters are well aware of the requirements of the Sunshine Law and have every intention to follow it as they meet with council members.
Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation and a leading advocate for Florida’s government Sunshine Law, said the group’s plan doesn’t appear problematic, as long as it does not relay information between council members.
“They certainly can’t say, ‘Smith, Jones and Green are behind it. What’s your position?” Petersen said. “That would be a problem.”
Jacksonville remains one of the few major cities that doesn’t offer the gay community protection from discrimination and has been a high-profile front in the battle for gay rights.
Council members, business leaders and other civic figures have framed the issue as a matter of both human rights and economic development, arguing Jacksonville’s competitiveness in attracting and retaining residents, companies and high-profile sports and entertainment events will suffer until all citizens are protected from discrimination.
“This issue will not go away, and it shouldn’t go away,” said Councilman Tommy Hazouri, who unsuccessfully pushed to pass similar legislation earlier this year. “It’s important as any issue facing us today.”
…The draft version of the legislation is just five pages long, far more condensed than the version introduced earlier this year. It exempts religious organizations and businesses with less than 15 employees from the law. It defines gender identity by a person’s “consistent and uniform assertion of a particular gender identity, appearance or expression, or by any other evidence that a person’s gender identity is sincerely held.”
The law also clearly states that gender identity shall not be asserted for any “improper, illegal or criminal purpose.” Some critics of anti-discrimination laws that include transgender people have argued it could allow men dressed as women to go into women’s bathroom. [READ MORE]