JACKSONVILLE (FBW)-A hearing for an ordinance banning discrimination against individuals based on sexual orientation — and "gender identity or expression" -- drew over 350 to a Jacksonville City Council meeting May 22 and extended past midnight to hear nearly 100 of the bill’s supporters and opponents.
A handful of Southern Baptist pastors and evangelical leaders spoke against the measure on moral grounds, joining John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Policy Council, in alleging the new ordinance could violate religious liberty, create new protected classes of individuals, and expose the city to unnecessary litigation.
The proposed ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Warren Jones, is aimed at housing, employment and public accommodations, and has the backing of many business leaders who say the absence of such civil rights protections is hurting the city’s image and recruitment of qualified workers.
Advocates who spoke in favor of the measure included former Mayor John Delaney, who has served as president of the University of North Florida since 2003, and others who mostly described themselves as successfully employed gay or lesbian businessmen and women residing in North Florida.
Mac Brunson, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, told the City Council during the seven-plus hour meeting that although “much of the rhetoric that the religious community has used on this and similar issues has, at times, not always been helpful or compassionate, … it is our intent to compassionately speak on the issue before us with clarity and conviction.”
Reading from a statement, Brunson noted the proposal’s language to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression “at the same level as legitimate and constitutionally protected classes of race, religion, gender and national origin.”
Brunson said the ordinance is not about “fairness” in employee retention and hiring, or discrimination, but is it a way of “legally mandating” people to accept lifestyles they might conscientiously object to on moral grounds.
“[T]he ordinance, if adopted, would in fact discriminate against every person whose faith, religious and moral beliefs and/or moral standards this ordinance would be confronting head on,” Brunson said.
Just before a tone signaling his three minute time period to speak was over, Brunson said that although proponents of the bill say certain organizations will be exempt, there still is the question of what protections will apply to faith-based hospitals, ministries, nursing homes, businesses, day care facilities, schools of learning, and the use of church and/or religious facilities for any purpose.
“I’m asking you to have vigorous debate, but come down against this ordinance,” Brunson said.
Brunson noted in his presentation the statement had the support of other local signatories including John Sullivan, executive director treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, who is also a member of First Baptist Jacksonville; Tom Messer, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church; H.B. Charles Jr., senior pastor of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church; George Davis, pastor of Faith Christian Center; Herb Reavis, senior pastor of North Jacksonville Baptist Church; Garry Wiggins, pastor of Evangel Temple Assembly of God; and Keith Russell, pastor of Westside Baptist Church.
“It removes all references to the U.S. Constitution. It removes all references to civil rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution,” Stemberger said. “I find that to be a remarkable thing, an obvious thing which just begs to answer, ‘Why’?”
Stemberger told council members the law also violates the religious liberty and rights of conscience of some Jacksonville residents. Acknowledging the ordinance exempts certain religious organizations, he said the assumption that those who work for those organizations “have strongly held religious beliefs” is a good one.
“But it assumes only folks who are ministers and who work in churches have those strongly held beliefs and everyone else is just kind of faking it, and they can just fake their religious convictions,” Stemberger said.
Responding to a question from City Councilwoman Kimberly Daniels about concerns, Stemberger said a “glaring” example is the situation faced by a private homeowner who would like to rent out a residential home and believes they would be facilitating immorality by renting to two persons who are not married or a gay couple.
“What is the greater injustice? Is it to force that person to violate their religious beliefs or force that couple to go somewhere else and find another home?” Stemberger asked. “We think it is a direct violation of the rights of the conscience of persons … whether we agree with that or not is irrelevant.”
Stemberger further noted, despite many claims to the contrary that the ordinance has nothing to do with same-sex marriage, that of the three states that have legislatively legalized same-sex marriage, all relied on sexual orientation precedents exactly like the one being proposed.
“A vote for this amendment is a vote to undermine the legal precedent for marriage in Florida,” Stemberger said. “That’s the primary long-term problem we have."
Despite two warnings from City Council President Stephen Joost that he would clear the chambers if the crowd continued to react to comments, some individuals laughed nearly each time Daniels asked questions, and voiced comments and made statements when people opposing the ordinance expressed their opinions.
Joey Vaughn, an attorney and business owner and member of First Baptist Jacksonville, responded to the dramatic testimony of some of the supporters by stating he did not believe in discrimination or that people should be treated unfairly.
“I believe if anybody picks on [people] or pricks them with a pin they ought to be arrested and brought to justice,” he said, rejecting that the measure is really about “hate or discrimination.”
“Lawsuits will arise,” he said with concern, citing four cases in other states.
“I believe this is at its core a continuation of a radical agenda to try and force a lifestyle on a community,” Vaughn said.
“I came here 47 years ago and we’ve about doubled in population and we gave you those great companies that signed that document and said they are in favor of this bill,” Luke said. “How did we do that if we are so backwards?”
The bill isn’t the “silver bullet” Jacksonville might be looking for in job creation, Luke said, largely because of the heavy investment in the housing market. Noting California “would be floating with jobs” if it was about a similar ordinance, Luke pointed out “they’re hemorrhaging jobs to Texas, Nevada and all over the place.”
Reminding the council most of the jobs created in the United States are by employers that have less than a hundred employees, Luke said an ordinance will cause Jacksonville problems. “I ask you to defeat this bill.”
Two committees are scheduled to consider the bill the week of June 4. A City Council vote on the measure could come at its June 12 meeting.
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