Sides prepare for HRO amendment fight

City Council begins discussions on LGBT amendment to Jacksonville's HRO

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – More drama unfolded Thursday in the fight over whether Jacksonville should amend its Human Rights Ordinance to protect the LGBT community from discrimination in hiring and housing.

Ministers of some of Jacksonville's largest churches announced unified opposition to efforts to expand the HRO minutes before the start of a special meeting of City Council to discuss two conflicting amendment proposals.

HRO Bill 2016-1, sponsored by City Councilman Bill Gulliford, proposes putting the issue on the August ballot for a citywide vote. That bill is favored by opponents of the amendment.

HRO Bill 2016-2, sponsored by City Councilman Tommy Hazouri, would put a protection for the LGBT community in the HRO if approved by the City Council.

Councilwoman Lori Boyer attempted to withdraw both bills Thursday and discuss them a few months from now, but that motion narrowly failed and the public hearing proceeded.

“The prudent thing to do is to press the pause button,” City Council President Greg Anderson said.

The meeting ended just after 6 p.m., and two more such meetings are scheduled. The next will be at 3 p.m. Feb. 18 at City Hall.

Before the meeting, over 125 ministers and others gathered at First Baptist Church downtown Thursday to say they believe Mayor Lenny Curry would veto the HRO amendment, if passed by Council, and that they would campaign to defeat the measure if it is placed on a ballot later this year.

Leading the charge was former City Council President Ginger Soud, who opposes "adding this new protective class on sexual orientation and gender identity."

"No. 1, it's not needed. No. 2, it threatens the religious liberty that was granted to us in the very beginning of our nation in our Constitution. And thirdly, it compromises personal privacy safety and security when using public facilities," Soud said.

The group, headed by the Florida Family Policy Council, said it is ready to defeat any law that might be passed. The pastors have already collected some signatures that would be used for a referendum to remove gays, lesbians and transgendered people from HRO protection.

There was another, smaller group of ministers at City Hall on Thursday who said it is in favor of HRO protection and that it’s the right thing to do.

The Jacksonville Coalition for Equality said it has about 110 members of the local religious community who are standing up for passage of a "fully inclusive" HRO.

“We know where most of our incumbent and newly elected City Council members stand on the issue, and so do HRO opponents," said JRO Chairman Dan Merkan. "Today’s announcement of a petition-collection drive to put the HRO on the ballot is clearly a last-minute, last-ditch effort meant to undermine our City Council’s authority less than a month before the City Council is scheduled to vote.”

Jimmy Midyette of the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality said it's clear why the ministers announced their intentions Thursday.

“The other side of the debate is so charged up for a referendum fight because they know they don’t have the support of City Council,” he said.

Some shocking claims were made Thursday by members of the public on the issue of giving protections to people who choose which gender they identify with, and consequently which bathroom they choose.

“I have friends that go to Robert E. Lee and Ed White (high schools) that claim to be transgender and would go in bathrooms and sexually assault women,” Trinity Christian Academy student Carter Jones said.

The pro-HRO amendment side cites a study by Media Matters that found that no woman has ever been sexually assaulted in a bathroom in Florida due to this issue.

“The young man who was concerned about his friends at Lee or Ed White High School, he needs to understand that Duval County schools already have protections in place for transgender students,” Midyette said. “Transgender students can already use a bathroom that’s in line with their gender, so that is an issue that is a bit of a red herring.”

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