Third effort to expand Jacksonville's Human Rights Ordinance officially kicks off

There’s officially a renewed effort on the table to expand Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance.

Councilman Aaron Bowman has committed to filing a new bill that would expand anti-discrimination protections to the LGBT community for housing, employment, and public accommodations. He told WOKV on Tuesday that he intended to introduce such a bill, if he felt there was enough support expressed during a public meeting Wednesday. Councilmen Jim Love and Tommy Hazouri have both signed on as co-introducers so far, although a total of ten Council votes are needed for the bill to ultimately pass.

The bill text has a few key differences from prior efforts that have been debated by the City Council.

First, the protections are based on “sexual orientation and gender identity”, and those terms are specifically defined in the bill. Prior efforts have also debated adding protection for gender expression, but in this bill expression is listed under the definition for gender identity. It further says gender identity must be demonstrated in a “consistent and uniform” manner and be sincerely held, not asserted for “improper, illegal or criminal purpose”.

That portion of the text is designed to pre-emptively address one of the common critiques that have surfaced in this debate- concern that a person can dress up as the opposite gender and suddenly claim to identify as the other gender, for the sole reason of using the opposite gender bathroom for malicious reasons, like to assault someone.

There is even more language specifically addressing questions on bathrooms and public accommodations, like locker rooms. The bill says businesses can still provide single sex facilities for anything that is, by its nature, a private facility, like a single-sex bathroom. The business would not be required to change any existing signage or retrofit any existing facility.

Dress codes are also allowed under this bill, but cannot be based on “sex stereotype”- meaning a business can’t tell a secretary to wear a skirt if she’s female. Rather, the dress code would require the secretary to be dressed professionally.

Several business leaders and community groups- including representatives from the JAX Chamber, Haskell, Baptist Health, the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality, JAXPORT, and OneJax - spoke out in favor of expansion, saying Jacksonville is one of the few major cities that doesn’t have such protections.

“This bill truly represents who we are as a community. We respect each other, we respect our religious freedoms and beliefs and we don’t want anyone in our community to be discriminated against for any reason,” says Darnell Smith, the 2017 Chamber Chair of the JAX Chamber.

Smith says he believes the businesses represented by the Chamber favor expansion, adding that it’s always a very important topic of discussion in negotiations they have with businesses that are considering a move to Jacksonville.  He says they anticipate some continuing to oppose expansion, but plan to be as present as possible to continue to make the case.

“This is an issue that casts a shadow over the city,” says Baptist Health CEO Hugh Greene.

“I heard from Hugh Greene, he’s got three sons who said that this is ridiculous that we haven’t passed this yet. Well, I have three sons also, and they say exactly the same thing. It’s cast a shadow. We have an opportunity now to put the light on and to make sure that everyone knows they’re welcome in Jacksonville. We know that, but we’ve got to tell the world that we know that,” says Love.

Hazouri further said he has spoken with Jaguars Owner Shad Khan, who expressed concern that big talent won't want to come to the new amphitheater that's being built if the City doesn't expand the HRO.  Bowman believes the fallout from legislation that was passed in North Carolina- including the state losing business and big events- shows that Jacksonville needs to act. He also believes the national climate is more favorable now than in the past.

This bill is also more simple- about four pages. Authors say it’s based on best practices and feedback from public meetings and Council comments.

“If you look at this bill, we have listened and learned from everything,” Hazouri says.

Exemptions are specifically stated for religious organizations- including schools, non-profits, and places of worship- and businesses with fewer than 15 employees.

The City Council withdrew two bills a year ago- one proposal would have had the Council vote on expansion, while the other would have put the decision on voters. They withdrew the actions at the time because Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry had issued a directive ordering City employment laws be brought in compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws, but not addressing housing or public accommodations. The Council wanted time to see the impact that directive would have.

A WOKV investigation found that coming in compliance with federal law meant City employment regulations were updated to include protections based on "sexual orientation, gender identity or expression"- which is exactly the phrase that had been debated. Many other affiliated organizations, like JSO and the independent authorities, subsequently made changes of their own. The Mayor has previously said he does not favor any further legislative action.

Those 2015 bills came after an expansion effort in 2012 was voted down by the Council.

Council President Lori Boyer says she intends for this bill to move through normal committee channels, rather than calling special meetings. She has asked the committee chairs which will be involved in the vetting to move the bills forward on a normal schedule, and not to try to defer action.

There were a few opponents to expansion present for the Wednesday meeting as well. They say they are ready to once again fight this effort.

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