Human Rights Ordinance Fails to Pass City Council; Swing Vote Gaffney: I Was Flooded by Calls, Letters

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Byline: David Bauerlein

In a cliffhanger decision, the Jacksonville City Council by a 10-9 vote Wednesday rejected a bill expanding the city's human rights ordinance to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.

A standing-room-only crowd of about 500 people tensely watched the votes of council members appear on the digital video board.

The decisive vote came from Councilman Johnny Gaffney.

Gaffney previously had supported the bill when it went through committees last week. But he voted against the bill Wednesday.

After the meeting, Gaffney would only say that he had been bombarded in the past few weeks with emails, letters and calls from his constituents who opposed the bill.

The vote capped three months of deliberation and debate about the extent of discrimination against gays and lesbians in Jacksonville, whether the city should add sexual orientation to the list of protected groups, and how much enforcement power the city should have in cases of discrimination against homosexuals.

Opponents of the bill, who wore blue Protect First Liberties stickers, burst into applause. Supporters of the bill were dismayed.

"It was heart-wrenching," said Jimmy Midyette, co-chairman of the Jacksonville Committee for Equality.

Midyette sought to rally those who had lobbied the council to back the bill.

"We'll figure out how we went wrong and what we can do better," he said to several dozen people who gathered outside City Hall. "I guarantee you this - we are not done fighting for LGBT rights."

Jeff Burnsed, senior pastor of Coral Ridge Baptist Ministries, said the council made the right decision.

"We're thankful to the Lord," Burnsed said.

He and Midyette said they didn't know Gaffney would vote against the bill until he cast his vote.

Heading into the meeting, eight council members including Gaffney had voted for the bill in committee or declared their support for it. Eight council members had voted against it.

The undecided council members were Richard Clark, Reggie Brown and Bill Bishop.

On Wednesday, Clark and Bishop voted for the bill. Brown opposed it. If not for Gaffney's change, that would have made it 10-9 in favor of the bill.

The city's human rights ordinance already bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, marital status, national origin, age or disability.

Councilman Warren Jones filed a bill in May adding sexual orientation. He later amended the bill by deleting language that gave protection based on "gender identity" and "gender expression." Equality Florida, a group that advocates anti-discrimination laws, objected that the change watered down the bill by eliminating protection for transgender individuals and would allow discrimination based on gender stereotypes.

But the change picked up support from council members who otherwise were inclined to oppose the bill. The 10-9 vote Wednesday was against the substitute legislation put forward by Jones. …