Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Fight for Human Rights Bill Isn't over; Term Limits for 9 City Council Members Will Bring Issue Back

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Fight for Human Rights Bill Isn't over; Term Limits for 9 City Council Members Will Bring Issue Back

Article excerpt

Byline: Matt Soergel & Steve Patterson

It went down in a dramatic, narrow defeat one year ago this month. But those who support expanding Jacksonville's human rights ordinance to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination say that won't be the last time the issue comes up.

It likely won't happen while the same City Council - which turned down the bill Aug. 15 in a hotly contested 10-9 vote - is in place.

But nine of 19 council members will be leaving office in 2015 because of term limits. Advocates say that gives them a solid opportunity to bring the anti-discrimination bill up again.

"We will work for candidates who support it," said Tom Serwatka of the Jacksonville Committee for Equality, which is part of a group that has monthly strategy meetings on the matter. "We're going to make it an issue in a lot of races."

Even opponents say it won't be going away.

"It'll be back, no doubt. They won't give up," said Councilman Don Redman. He spoke out against the bill last year and is one of the council members facing term limits.

"People are very passionate about it. Most of the people I know, I go to church at First Baptist Church, the strong Christians who follow the Bible, there's only one way they'll go," he said.

In the 2015 election, the issue will motivate candidates - and the public - on both sides, say both Redman and City Councilman Warren Jones, who introduced the bill that was defeated last year.

Each expects it to be a high-profile issue in the months leading to election day.

"You're going to have both sides going at it, but I think the majority of people see that discrimination is wrong," said Jones, who will also be leaving his seat because of term limits.

POLL SHOWS SUPPORT

Bill Retherford is a veteran documentary filmmaker who's interviewed more than three dozen people for "Six Words," a half-hour show on the failed expansion of the human rights ordinance. He plans to shop it to TV stations this fall.

"I'm doing a lot of interviews with business people who say the city runs the risk of damaging itself," he said. "It sticks out in Florida like a sore thumb as the only large city without these protections."

Last year's bill was controversial, to be sure, but it also had solid mainstream support.

JAX Chamber and the Jacksonville Civic Council, a group of business leaders, spoke in favor, saying it would help the city attract talented workers.

Getting the ordinance in place has become a goal of JAX2025, a visioning exercise that invites thousands of residents to become do-it-yourself change agents over the next 12 years.

And 58 percent of Jacksonville residents polled in February by the University of North Florida said they supported expanding the human rights ordinance.

There's even a precedent in Northeast Florida: The St. Augustine City Commission in December voted unanimously to add sexual orientation to the list of reasons that people cannot be denied housing in the city.

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

Jones' bill in 2012 would have added sexual orientation to that list. The measure did gain some support from council members after he deleted language that would have given protection based on "gender identity" and "gender expression."

Yet that was still not enough to pass the bill - and it left some advocates complaining that it was watered down.

"It's an incomplete civil rights bill," said James Eddy, who has already declared himself a candidate for City Council from District 7.

The human rights amendment is not his major issue, he said, but it was the one "that pushed me over the edge."

Backers of an expanded human rights ordinance, Eddy among them, say they might next test the idea in one of the Beaches communities before trying Jacksonville again. …

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