JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Crowds representing both sides showed up in force Tuesday night as Jacksonville's City Council began considering adding gay, lesbian and transsexual protections to the city's Human Rights Ordinance.
It's the third time the City Council has attempted to tackle the controversial issue.
Jacksonville is the largest city in Florida not to offer legal protection to those groups in issues of housing and employment.
Councilman Tommy Hazouri and other supporters of adding the protection to Jacksonville's law say changes in the wording of a proposal introduced Wednesday that excludes small businesses and religious groups might be enough to get the measure passed by council, but some religious groups are already saying, "No way."
Hazouri, a former mayor of Jacksonville and an outspoken proponent of expanding the HRO, said he's whittled his HRO expansion bill down to five pages and now includes exemptions for churches and businesses with fewer than 15 employees.
The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and equal rights groups have argued that not passing an HRO expansion will hurt Jacksonville financially.
City Council President Lori Boyer said she wants the bill to go through the process quickly, which means the council could vote on it in a month.
“Any legislation they decide to debate and take up, if they end up with a bill, I will evaluate it when it ends up on my desk and that includes any subject or issue,” Mayor Lenny Curry said. “I took action last year within my executive authority. Right now, I have a very clear focus on city budgets, on crime prevention. If City Council decides to take up any other issue, that's their job. I will evaluate any bill that winds up on my desk at that time.”
Last February, Hazouri withdrew his original HRO expansion bill when it appeared the measure was going to be defeated. He said he hopes more people will back him this time around, and the new version will be something all sides can agree on.
During the first night of public comment on the revised HRO expansion bill, more than a hundred people on both sides asked to address the City Council.
"The LGBT machine demands tolerance, but they're the most intolerant movement in America," said Philip Wemhoff, who opposes the HRO expansion.
"Why would any sane person choose this, that would deprive them of life and human rights?" said Harriet Hammel, who supports the HRO expansion.
Jimmy Midyette, legislative director of the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality, also voiced support for the bill, saying it makes sense to offer protection against discrimination to everyone in the city.
"I mean we see the folks here who are on the other side and they have these clever stickers that say, 'No to the HRO.' I tried to engage one of them in a conversation to remind them we actually have an HRO already and that protects most categories. We only missed two, which is sexual orientation and gender identity," Midyette said.
Opponents of the HRO expansion who commented in front of the City Council included Raymond Johnson from Biblical Concepts Ministries, who said the bill turns discrimination prevention into targeting of believers.
"Discrimination happens all day, every day," Johnson said. "So this is just a propaganda piece to further their agenda, which is basically criminalizing Christianity and silencing opposition to the homosexual lifestyle."
Council leadership decided to limit comments to no later than midnight, so they calculated how many people wanted to speak, how much time was left and turned on the microphone and timer.
”When the meeting started, what did we all do? Pledge allegiance to the flag, and what’s the last line? Liberty and justice -- for all," said supporter Harry Houston.
”I’d advise you, please remember what Republicans are supposed to stand for. Not the suppression of the freedom of association, the freedom of speech, and the free exercise of religion," said Carlos Perreira, who opposes the HRO expansion.
The next reading of the bill will take place in two weeks. Boyer said every person who wants to make public comments will get three minutes -- even if they have to stop at midnight and restart the comments the next morning.
The second reading of the bill will take place on Jan. 24. Boyer said that every person who wants to address the issue will get a chance during the state mandated public hearing, even if it goes into the following day.