Crowds overflow City Council Chamber to voice opinions on HRO expansion plan

Jacksonville residents for, against ordinance protecting LGBT rights speak out

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Crowds of people packed City Hall's Council Chamber and spilled into two overflow rooms, including one across the street in the downtown Main Library, to voice their opinions Tuesday evening at a second reading of a bill that would add gay, lesbian and transsexual protections to Jacksonville's Human Rights Ordinance.

It was second time that the Jacksonville City Council heard public comments, but the second reading of the revised HRO expansion bill meant a state-mandated opportunity of three minutes per person and for each person to be heard. 

The bill has revived controversy among Jacksonville residents as the City Council attempts to tackle the issue for the third time. 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 that excludes small businesses and religious groups might be enough to get the measure passed by council, but some religious groups are 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.

READ: Hazouri's revised HRO ordinance

Before the meeting began, the City Council took an informal poll, asking those in attendance who is in favor or opposed to updating the HRO. The results were split 50-50.

Each speaker had to fill out a card. So many people turned in the commenting cards that they ran out at one point.

Is there a need for more protections in the law? Or are people protected against discrimination already? Those were the among the questions raised as activists on both sides of the issue shared their feelings and arguments.

"This is not a bill for equal rights. This is a bill for special rights. It’s for special rights for who you think you are, and your sexual preference. We have equal rights in our nation. We are eroding the right of freedom of speech and freedom of religion through this bill," said Pam Robbins, who opposes HRO expansion.

"I suppose my biggest fear here is that everything is being judged on financial basis. How about doing what is right? Treating people are human beings? That’s all we care about," said Don Larson, who supports HRO expansion.

Even after 11 p.m., people were still taking the podium. There were some passionate speeches, as well as some hard feelings.

"Our businesses are in jeopardy. Our churches are in jeopardy. And our little children are in jeopardy. Whether you want to believe it or not, they are. Open your eyes. If you don't want to vote on it in the council, give it to the citizens of Jacksonville. The grownups of Jacksonville can make up their minds," one woman said.

"I should be defined by my effort. My effort alone should determine my success of failure, not what I wear or how I look, and not because of one of the organs that happen to be in my body," HRO expansion supporter Erin Taylor said.

Taylor said she was raised male, but is female, and will race in the Donna 26.2 as a woman.

Other speakers said they love everyone regardless of sexual expression, but they feel the bill is wrong. 

The Jacksonville City Council could vote on the ordinance as soon as three weeks from Tuesday -- on Valentine's Day.

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