JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP) — The Jacksonville, Fla., city council Wednesday (Aug. 15) narrowly rejected altering its human rights ordinance to add sexual orientation to the list of those protected from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation.
The vote followed three months of testimony and debate about whether discrimination exists in Jacksonville against gays and lesbians — and if so, whether legislation is the appropriate response. Jacksonville, the largest city in Florida and the 11th largest city in the nation, joins Houston, Phoenix and San Antonio as other cities listed in the nation’s 11 most populated cities without similar ordinances.
A substitute bill purporting to exempt churches and religious institutions was narrowly defeated in a 10-9 vote and the original bill (2012-296) was soundly defeated 17-2. The original bill would have added protections for “gender identity” and “[gender] expression.”
A standing-room only crowd of more than 600 opponents and supporters flooded city council chambers in City Hall and into an overflow room where some opponents wore blue “Protect First Liberties” stickers and most supporters wore red “Yes! 296” stickers.
Erupting in applause following the votes, opponents sobered quickly when some supporters stood up and yelled, “Throw them out!” — before they stormed out of the auditorium under the watchful eyes of nearly 30 police officers at the back of the room.
More than two-thirds of those who had contacted city council opposed the legislation, Councilmen Clay Yarborough told the Witness in a July interview. Overall, council members fielded about 10,000 emails, hundreds of phone calls and visits, and heard hours of testimony before the meeting.
Yarborough told the council “no substantial evidence has been provided” that the bill is needed in Jacksonville, and pointed out that even the bill’s supporters were divided on the substitute measure which passed muster by two of three council committees and was proposed by the sponsor of the original bill.
Councilman Warren Jones in June offered an amendment to the bill that he said would strike “gender and identity and expression,” clarify that churches are exempt, and exempt businesses with 15 or fewer employees. In addition, Jones said the bill would send those with complaints to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission.
Prior to the Aug. 15 meeting, eight council members had voted for the bill in committee or said they would support it, while three of 19 council members were still said to be undecided. In the end, however, one council member who had previously supported the substitute measure, Councilman Johnny Gaffney, voted against it. With Gaffney’s switch, even though previously undecided council members supported it and one opposed it, the bill failed.
John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Policy Council, applauded the bill’s defeat.
“This is an extraordinary victory for the people of Jacksonville who rose up and made it clear they were not going to allow some secret council of elite powerbrokers or activists from outside Jacksonville to force extreme policies upon them,” Stemberger said in a statement. “I believe we are seeing the tables start to turn on ‘gay rights’ issues when Americans see how really extreme these left-wing activists are. These are not just people who have a same sex attraction and want to be left alone to freely define themselves. This is a radical group of political operatives who want to force their aberrant views on human sexuality upon the rest of society by the mandate and penalty of law.”
Stemberger, who testified before city council at the request of some Jacksonville residents and church leaders, noted “the Chick-fil-A backlash, the recent outing of the new ‘pan-gendered’ legislator in Texas, the plummeting of J.C. Penney stocks after they started displaying ads with openly gay men on Father’s day, Home Depot parading explicit sexual conduct in front of children, and now the major defeat of 296 in Florida’s largest and most progressive city” should all send a message that people are aware of a larger movement.
“I believe people are waking up to the truth that this is not about discrimination or fairness but about an intolerance and utter disrespect for the rights of others, namely Christians and those who believe in traditional family values,” Stemberger said.
Joey Vaughn, a local attorney and member of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, told to the Florida Baptist Witness after the meeting, “Have people in the homosexual community been treated unfairly? Absolutely.”
Still, Vaughn said, the “ultimate vote” of the council demonstrated the proposed ordinance was not needed because the bill never was about anti-discrimination or protection, he said. Instead, Vaughn said an “activist group was seeking to force the government-mandated affirmation of a behavior.”
Vaughn said while “we who are believers need to examine our own hearts” in how we treat others — including those who are obese, who have physical deformities and who otherwise are made fun of — “this does not mean the acceptance of a lifestyle” that is not biblically correct.
“We are pleased and we give all the praise and glory to God,” Vaughn said of the result. “It is time that Christians and the body of Christ stand up. This ordinance had a great deal of support from a minority, special interest group, and the overwhelming majority of the Christian community throughout this county has stayed silent. … I’m pleased that council voted according to its conscience and that shows the conscience of Jacksonville.”
For supporters of the measure, Vaughn said, tolerance is a two-way street.
“I ask those supporters of this bill to be tolerant. While I disagree with supporters of this ordinance, I would fight to the death for their right to say what they believe,” Vaughn asserted. “When they bring militant and threatening type actions to try and change public policy against the fabric of society, [and] the family unit, the church of Jesus Christ better stand tall for what Jesus Christ did in our lives.”
Yarborough also expressed appreciation following the vote.
“Praise Jesus and may He receive all glory and honor through the council’s vote,” he said.
Southern Baptist leaders in Florida who opposed the measure included John Sullivan, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention; Mac Brunson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville; Keith Russell, pastor of Westside Baptist Church in Jacksonville; Rick Wheeler, lead strategist of the Jacksonville Baptist Association; Gary Williams, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Mandarin; Jeff Burnsed, pastor of Coral Ridge Baptist Church in Jacksonville; Ginger Soud, a member of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville and former council president; and Herb Reavis, senior pastor of North Jacksonville Baptist Church.
Supporters of the bill included former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney, who has served as president of the University of North Florida since 2003, former council President Matt Carlucci, and other business leaders.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness (www.GoFBW.com ), where this story first appeared.