JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After five years of debate and protest, the Jacksonville City Council voted on Valentine's Day to update the city's existing Human Rights Ordinance to add protection for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.
Mayor Lenny Curry did not sign the bill, which means he chose not to veto it, and the measure is now law.
During the Tuesday evening's City Council meeting, there was back-and-forth discussions and members vigorously debated before voting 12-6 to pass the amendment -- establishing nondiscrimination protections in housing, employment and public places, such as restaurants, stores and entertainment venues.
Councilman Aaron Bowman, who introduced the legislation, said the final vote nearly brought him to tears.
"It's an emotional issue. You look at a population of maybe (40,000) to 50,000 people have been discriminated. And tonight we said that's not going to happen anymore," Bowman said.
Amendments to the bill, which included eliminating potential jail time from anyone violating the ordinance and clarifying the definition of a religious organization, passed easily.
The council defeated by 13-5 votes several amendments, including one that would have put the issue to a vote of the people and one that would remove transgender language from the bill. Councilman Bill Gulliford, who has been against the measure from the start, was unable to get enough support to make the changes.
"It would be great to look in people's minds as to why they voted. It seems like the issues I raise and the concerns were not concerns for many other people. And I think they were legitimate concerns. So it's unfortunate there's a very strong passion," Gulliford said. "(But) nothing prevents a council member from bringing it up a year or so from now, offering changes in amendments, and maybe even revoking it."
Council President Lori Boyer said members were aware of a large group of constituents that were against the legislation.
"I think that we listened and we tried to make sure that those liberties were protected and the rights of the individuals who were expressing their opposition were protected in that regard," Boyer said.
Council member Katrina Brown was absent from the meeting.
Curry released the following statement regarding City Council’s supermajority vote:
“As your Mayor, I promised to convene community conversations about discrimination. At the conclusion of those conversations, I exercised an executive action to implement a clear policy for city of Jacksonville employees and contractors. I said then and continue to believe additional legislation was unnecessary. But this evening, a supermajority of the City Council decided otherwise. This supermajority, representatives of the people from both parties and every corner of the city, made their will clear.
"Now, with the issue resolved, I invite City Council and all the people of Jacksonville to join me as we confront serious issues like the final steps of pension reform to bring us financial security and increase our efforts to end the violence and crime hurting innocent people in our city.”
Supporters dance, opponents march outside City Hall after passage of HRO expansion
Demonstrations for and against the amendment gathered Tuesday afternoon at Hemming Park hours ahead of the vote.
People in favor of the proposal handed out Valentine's Day treats at the door of City Hall and ministers supporting HRO expansion held prayer services as church members against the HRO expansion marched around the building.
Thirty minutes before the meeting began, officials announced that the chamber had reached its capacity of 350 people, and others were directed to an overflow room at the downtown library.
After the final vote, applause broke out in the council chamber despite admonishment from Boyer.
Outside, people supporting the bill began dancing in the street outside City Hall and waiving "Love Wins" signs as they celebrated the passage of the HRO amendment in Jacksonville.
"It was an amazing turn of events for the city," said Greg Soltis, who was celebrating the HRO vote.
Among the crowd celebrating was one couple who said they've experienced discrimination because of their sexuality.
"We have experienced it. We live at the beach. We've been denied service at a couple of restaurants because we weren't quite feminine enough," Kris Matson said.
"I'm a native of Jacksonville. What I can't believe is I used to live near here. I used to play in this park. And look what happened tonight -- equal rights. It's unbelievable that it happened," Lyn Lazarus said.
Supporters said the city is finally moving forward after going way too long without an HRO amendment that protects gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
"It's gratifying to see such amazing support from this council because, obviously, they have paid attention to the thousands and thousands of constituents," said Jimmy Midyette, a supporter of HRO expansion.
But not every one was smiling outside City Hall. Opponents said the measure is going to hurt religious organizations and small businesses, despite language in the ordinance that exempts religious organizations and small businesses with less than 15 employees.
"I feel like the citizens of Jacksonville have been let down. I'm glad, frankly, a vote has been made because it tells the citizen where these council members stand," said Joey Vaughn, who's against the HRO expansion.
Other opponents to expanding the ordinance said they didn't want to believe it would happen.
"Listen, this bill restricts religious liberty. It is horrible for litigation problems for small business," said Raymond Johnson II, of Biblical Concepts Ministries, who opposed HRO expansion.
After the vote, some opponents protested by continuing to march around City Hall and pray.
"If it’s ratified, if it's law, it's law. Not too much we can do about that. We just continue to pray and depend on God and let God do the moving and let God take control of the situation, not us," said Dr. Ronnie Edwards, who opposed HRO expansion.
Despite protests before the vote, the City Council moved ahead, leaving many people feeling hopeful and relieved, and making others concerned and upset about the future of Jacksonville.