A Catholic bookstore is challenging Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance, contending the law prevents the store from expressing its rejection of transgender pronouns.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian advocacy group, sued the city in federal court this week on behalf of the Queen of Angels Catholic bookstore on San Jose Boulevard in Mandarin.
The 52-page lawsuit states that the Human Rights Ordinance, or HRO, infringes on the store’s free speech rights — specially, the right to declare that a person’s gender is determined by God at birth.
The HRO, the suit says, requires businesses to address customers using their preferred pronouns and titles and prohibits the bookstore from saying anything that could make someone feel “unwelcome, objectionable, or unacceptable.”
The ordinance prevents store owner Christie DeTrude from posting her beliefs on gender and human sexuality on the store’s website and blog, in part to explain why employees cannot use someone’s chosen pronoun in the store, the suit says.
“All of that puts them at risk of violating the Jacksonville Human Rights Ordinance, even though the ability to do that is protected by the Constitution,” said Hal Frampton, an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom. “Freedom of speech is for everyone, and we are seeking to vindicate their rights to speak freely.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom was started in 1994 to defend the rights of those in the Christian community, as well as other religious denominations, its website says. The organization says it is “firmly committed to the principle that religious freedom must extend to individuals of all faiths and no faith.”
An article on the alliance’s website proclaims, “Jacksonville is trying to trample on the First Amendment rights of a private business.”
City Councilman Matt Carlucci, one of the HRO original co-sponsors, responded to suggestions that the ordinance is unconstitutional: “The city of Jacksonville is confident that the HRO ordinance is protecting people from discrimination, and the city is confident it meets constitutional requirements,” he said.
An updated HRO passed City Council on a 15-4 vote in June 2020 with protections against discrimination due to sexual orientation and gender identity,
Councilman Aaron Bowman added a substitution to the bill to clearly define religious institutions, which are exempt from the law.
The substitution also states that employers can still create single-sex restrooms and other private facilities and that an employer can still have a dress code, as long as the dress code is not based on gender stereotypes.
“This HRO is just common sense to me on treating people with dignity and respect,” Bowman said at the time.
The bookstore’s lawsuit asks Chief U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan to rule that the HRO violates the U.S. Constitution’s First and 14th Amendments. It says the store serves everyone regardless of sexual identity, including those who “present as transgender.”
Since the store follows Catholic teaching, that includes the belief that God created everyone “in His image, male or female, worthy of equal dignity and respect,” the lawsuit states.
The HRO mandates that the bookstore profess “an ideological view it opposes” and contradict the message in the books it sells. the suit says. Queen of Angels is deprived of its ability to run the business according to its faith, the suit argues.
Frampton said the HRO, in essence, mandates that the Catholic bookstore “stop being fully Catholic,” he said.
The HRO also includes “a prohibition on publishing anything that would make someone feel unwelcome based on gender identity,” Freeman said. “And simply posting about gender and sexuality on their website could do that and places them at risk of violating the ordinance.”
An HRO violation could leave the bookstore open to cease-and-desist orders, investigations, hearings, “uncapped fines, attorney fee awards and unlimited damages,” the suit says. Between Oct. 1, 2017, and Sept. 30, 2021, the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission investigated 935 complaints about alleged HRO violations, the suit says.
While Queen of Angels is prohibited from stating its views, many businesses in Jacksonville — including Queen of Angels’ competitors — promote the view that a person’s gender can be changed and that a business should use a person’s preferred pronoun, the suit says.
Queen of Angels asked the city on Feb. 9 to “disavow” enforcing its law against the bookstore, the suit says. The city refused.
The suit seeks to stop the city from citing the store, which Frampton said has not happened because the store has not posted its views on its website or blog.
“They don’t want to have to violate the law in order to find out if the city is going to enforce it against them,” Frampton said. “Americans have the right to challenge unjust and unconstitutional laws. They don’t have to wait to be prosecuted in order to bring those orders into court, and that’s what we are doing here.”