Jacksonville, Florida's third and final “community conversation” on a proposed LGBT rights law Tuesday saw impassioned statements from both supporters and opponents, leaving at least one City Council member with little hope for common ground.
“Both sides are just so dug in, so dogmatic, and there just does not seem to be any room to move,” Councilman Bill Gulliford told The Florida Times-Union. “I’ve heard statements that it’s ‘all or none’ from various folks that are supporters of passing legislation, and equally you’ve got a pretty strong position from the folks who are opposed to it.”
All 400 seats at Jacksonville University’s Terry Concert Hall were filled for the session, and about 150 people were turned away, the Times-Union reports. Attendees heard a panel discuss how adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s human rights ordinance would affect business, and members of the audience shared their views during a public comment period.
The panel, selected by Mayor Lenny Curry, included several business executives, a lawyer who is a former City Council member, a representative of the anti-LGBT group Liberty Counsel, and, controversially, a local minister who has not only spoken out against expanding the ordinance but has lampooned its supporters on Twitter, using homophobic and transphobic caricatures.
That minister, Pastor Kenneth Adkins, received applause when he said, “We live in a time that Christians need a law passed to protect them. It’s crazy because we can no longer say what we believe.”
Adkins asked another panelist, Baptist Health CEO Hugh Greene, if the company “allows Christians to follow their faith while they work.” Greene replied, “It’s the law not to discriminate based on religion.” Religion is already covered by the human rights ordinance.
Adkins also said there should be a voter referendum on expanding the ordinance, rather than just letting the City Council pass legislation. Attorney and former council member Jack Webb, a fellow panel member, responded that a referendum could result in a “canned ordinance that is one size fits all,” so citizens should let the council do its job and take into consideration concerns raised at the community meetings.
“You stick with the legislative process, and you have an opportunity to craft legislation that works for the community,” Webb said. No legislation has been introduced so far, as the council has been taking input from the public meetings; earlier ones focused on family and religion. Council member Tommy Hazouri plans to introduce legislation adding LGBT protections, while Gulliford is ready to introduce a measure that would put the issue before voters, the Times-Union reports.
Hazouri had criticized the inclusion of Adkins on the panel. “It makes you wonder about the sincerity of this thing when you see somebody like Ken Adkins on there,” Hazouri told the Times-Union earlier Tuesday.
Adkins posted a photo to his Twitter account December 2 with clearly doctored images of Hazouri and another man together in a restroom stall and peeking over the top while a person in women’s clothing stands at a urinal. A thought bubble from the latter reads, “I am so glad Tommy is on our side.” Another tweet had Adkins in a wig, threatening to crash a local Democratic Party event in drag; he did not follow through.
At Tuesday’s meeting, those speaking in support of an expanded ordinance included brothers David and Michael Miller, who run an insurance company. Michael, who is gay, said the company has created an inclusive culture in its office, but with the lack of citywide protections, LGBT people don’t have the ability to “not be fearful of being themselves” in all workplaces.
Jimmy Midyette of the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality also voiced support, noting that 56 percent of Floridians live in a jurisdiction with such protections, offered by other major Florida cities, and there have been no problems. “Has there been some sort of a riot?” he said. “I would think that would be breaking news on every channel every night.”
This week the coalition announced it had collected written statements endorsing an expanded law from hundreds of people, including 200 business leaders, the Times-Union reports. The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce also supports the expanded ordinance.
But to Liberty Counsel’s Roger Gannam, the fact that so many businesses oppose discrimination indicates an LGBT-inclusive ordinance is not needed. “It just goes to show you that Jacksonville doesn’t have a widespread discrimination problem that needs to be fixed,” he told the paper Tuesday.
Mayor Curry has not taken a stand on adding LGBT protections, saying he would consider the comments from the community meetings and other input. “My conversations and learning process continue,” he said at the close of Tuesday’s session.
The City Council rejected an expanded ordinance in 2012. This year’s debate, in addition to the community sessions, has been marked by a visit from Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who called for Jacksonville to adopt the protections recently repealed by her city’s voters, and the distribution of antigay leaflets by the Ku Klux Klan.