City Council hears from passionate public on HRO expansion

Hundreds speak for, against Jacksonville ordinance to protect LGBT rights

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A marathon Jacksonville City Council meeting Tuesday night on the future of the proposed Human Rights Ordinance expansion had to reconvene Wednesday morning to give the public more time for comments.

The crowd Wednesday was substantially smaller than that of the day before, where nearly 1,000 people lined around the building, forcing officials to open two overflow rooms to accommodate all who came to speak for or against a proposal to expand legal protections to Jacksonville's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.

For the HRO to pass, 10 out of 19 council members will have to vote in favor, and it's likely to be a tight vote. That’s why so many people are speaking up to win over the council members.

“It will be a close vote, but certainly, it is important for the democratic process for people to speak, and we gave them that right,” City Councilman Jim Love said.

Differing opinions were heard by the council. Some opponents expressed their concern for religious freedoms, while others had public accommodation concerns. Some supporters of the bill simply said the ordinance is the right thing to do.

"From a faith position, I see the need for a fully inclusive HRO here in Jacksonville as simply living out my call following Jesus Christ to love and respect the dignity of every human being, (and) to protect those in society who need to be protected,” HRO expansion supporter David Erickson said.

"I don't want women in my bathroom,” opponent of the HRO expansion Kevin Lesh said. “They won't want men in theirs. I think it's important that we come here to stand together and let them know how we feel about that."

Some people were subdued, and others were fired up at Wednesday’s meeting. At one point, the council had to briefly stop testimony after two people in the audience were heard arguing. Both men had to be told to be quiet before testimony could resume.

One side argued that people of all sexual orientations should have equal rights for housing and employment. The other side said the city already has laws on the books against discrimination and spoke against adding gay, lesbian and transgender protections to the city's Human Rights Ordinance.

"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 as human beings? That’s all we care about," said Don Larson, who supports HRO expansion.

It was the 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.

“You can't ever say that we have not been transparent and all inclusive and listening to everybody's discussions,” City Councilman Tommy Hazouri said.

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.

Hazouri and other supporters of adding the protection to Jacksonville's law said 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 still saying no. 

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 includes exemptions for churches and businesses with fewer than 15 employees.

READ: Hazouri's revised HRO ordinance

Before Tuesday's meeting began, the City Council took an informal poll, asking those in attendance who was in favor of 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. 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 or 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 felt the bill was wrong.

City leaders said after the meetings the public brought up some great points that will have to be considered as the council makes its decision.

“We need this bill more than ever. It actually solidified my stance that this is the right thing to do for Jacksonville,” City Councilman Aaron Bowman said.

“My goal is to make sure that we move through the process deliberately, allow all the opportunity for public comment, but also not allow this bill to consume our agenda through June,” City Council president Lori Boyer said. “We need to go ahead, make whatever amendments need to be made or what people feel are appropriate, and vote on the bill. One way or the other.”

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

If it passes, the mayor would have to sign off for it to become official.

About the Authors: