Council, supporters discuss gay rights bill

A line of people waits to get through City Hall security before Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
A line of people waits to get through City Hall security before Tuesday night's City Council meeting.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville City Council is considering a historic amendment that would give gays and lesbians equal protection under the law.

Currently, it's not against the law to discriminate against homosexuals when it comes to employment, housing and public accommodations.

A public hearing was being held Tuesday at City Hall to discuss the amendment. At it, hundreds of gay, lesbian and strait supporters were in attendance to speak to council members on the issue, hoping to persuade them to pass the amendment to the Equal Opportunity Ordinance so that they can be treated fairly under the law.

"Either they were not hired because they were gay or they were fired because they were gay. So there is discrimination out there," said Jimmy Midyette, a member of Jacksonville Committee for Equality.

Erika Hooper said she has felt the backlash of being an openly gay woman. She said in 2010, a landlord turned her and her partner down when they tried to rent a house.

"A woman actually discriminated against us and told us she was not going to rent to us because we were gay," Hooper said.

The new proposal could make that kind of discrimination illegal. It's already against the law for employers or renters to discriminate based on race, religion, age, disability and marital status. Bill 2012-296 adds six words to the list: "sexual orientation, gender identity or expression," meaning gays and lesbians would have the same protection everyone else has.

"I've enjoyed seeing this happen," Hooper said. "I think it's going to be wonderful for equal rights for this city."

Support is growing not only in the gay community, but also in the business community. On the back page of the A section in Tuesday's edition of the Florida Times-Union, the Jacksonville Civic Council took out a full page as endorsing the proposal. It includes the names from some of the biggest businesses in Jacksonville, including former Mayor John Delaney.

"There's people whose religious faith just says, 'This is a problem to me,' but the business community, the Civic Council, the Chamber of Commerce, basically unanimously support for this," Delaney said.

Delaney said this is not only a fairness issue. It's also good business if Jacksonville wants to grow, he said.

"Businesses won't relocate here. They won't come here if we don't have this thing in the books. Then there's a fairness issue," Delaney said. "I just don't think you should be able to fire an employee simply because they're gay."

There are those who disagree.

"You have that right under the U.S. Constitution. Have that right under EEOC, you have that protection under the Civil Rights Act of 1968," said Dr. Gene Youngblood of First Conservative Baptist Church.

Youngblood sayid Bill 296 would create a super-class who would have more rights and protections than others.

But not all religious leaders are opposing the legislation.  Rabbi Joshua Lief of Congregation Ahavatha Chesed said the bill is not about hot button topics but simply about discrimination.

"This isn't an issue of same sex marriage or even the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality. This is an issue of discrimination and that is something Judaism is solidly opposed to," Lief said.