PerspectivesA.G. Gancarski Jacksonville Today Contributor

OPINION | Federal case could threaten local LGBT protections

Published on March 19, 2023 at 8:40 pm

Those who moved to Jacksonville in recent years may not remember the long and tortuous battle to get LGBTQ+ protections into city law.

The expansion of the Human Rights Ordinance, passed in 2017 by a supermajority 12-6 vote that Mayor Lenny Curry used as a reason not to veto the measure, was ultimately modest in its aims, or at least that’s how it seemed to two-thirds of the Council at the time. It permitted LGBTQ+ people to use public accommodations, secure housing, and keep their jobs without discrimination.  Among the strongest backers of the HRO: The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, whose CEO then was now-Republican mayoral candidate Daniel Davis.

The Council had to pass the bill again in 2020, after the First District Court of Appeal ruled that the bill’s passage was defective and cure legislation was necessary. That glitch fix passed by a 15-4 vote. Even conservatives, such as current mayoral candidate LeAnna Gutierrez Cumber, were on board (Cumber was not on Council when it passed originally). Of course, another conservative Council member running for Mayor this week, Al Ferraro, opposed the bill both times.

The second time around, Mayor Curry signed it, a remarkable move in the sense that the city was actively courting the Republican National Convention to relocate to Jacksonville (Ultimately that didn’t happen).

A lot has happened politically since 2020. Tallahassee has moved much farther to the right since the original bill passed, emboldened by a GOP supermajority in both the House and the Senate. And yet another court challenge to Jacksonville’s revamped Human Rights Ordinance is in play federally, on the grounds it hampers freedom of expression and freedom of religion. 

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The federal court venue is significant, especially given the religious exemption in the legislation that some might think applies in this case even though it’s a for-profit commercial enterprise and not a church. It suggests the plaintiff, a Catholic bookstore owner, believes the ultimate remedy could be overturning the law writ large.

The Queen of Angels Bookstore filed the suit last month challenging the HRO, contending that it is censoring freedom of speech – specifically of pronouns.

“Following a disturbing nationwide trend, the City has expanded its public-accommodation law to cover gender-identity discrimination and thereby require businesses to address customers using their preferred pronouns and titles regardless of a customer’s biological sex. The law even prevents businesses from publishing ‘any communication’ a customer or government official might subjectively interpret as making someone feel ‘unwelcome, objectionable, or unacceptable,’ such as statements opposing gender-identity ideology.”

You may ask yourself why a bookstore, even a Catholic book store, would need to do this as part of their business model, which includes clientele that presents as transgender.

“The bookstore just cannot speak contrary to its beliefs — to affirm, for example, the view that sex can be changed. So the store cannot use customers’ pronouns or titles contrary to their biological sex. Queen of Angels wants to put this policy in writing, publish it, and explain its Catholic views on gender identity to customers” on its website, the filing contends.

So much for the customer is always right. Michael Jordan made the case long ago for staying out of politics, saying Republicans buy shoes too. But this is a new age, where the political isn’t just personal but also a business model. The HRO stops the store from being “fully Catholic,” the owner contends. 

Now you may ask yourself here what that phrase even means. When the non-LGBTQ parts of the HRO were passed decades ago, it was at the end of a rough number of decades for Jacksonville’s race relations. Most here know about Ax Handle Saturday or the years-long battle to integrate schools. Those racists could well have argued they were being stopped from being “fully white.”

The case is predicated, in part, on customers’ taking positions the store owner doesn’t like: “Occasionally, Queen of Angels has a customer who wants to argue about the Catholic church. Queen of Angels is an easy target for this kind of behavior because it has a physical location and published hours, and because it so clearly promotes Catholic beliefs.”

Thus, the plaintiff seeks to be able to expound on “human sexuality, the creation of human beings as male and female, the immutability of biological sex, God’s design for people to live consistent with their God-given sex, God’s design for marriage to be exclusively between one man and one woman, and God’s design for sexual activity to be practiced only between a man and woman who are married and not under other circumstances.”

This case will cast a shadow over the mayoral campaign, even if you heard nothing about it in forums or the sole television debate. The city’s response to the filing is due Tuesday, and a motion hearing is set for April 24th, just weeks before the General Election.

Will the two candidates who advance to the General Election (potentially Daniel Davis of the pro-HRO Chamber and Democrat Donna Deegan) ever be compelled to discuss how they would handle this direct challenge to city law? Not in statement form, but on a stage, under bright lights, where any ambiguity in expression would be laid out for the public to see?

It should happen. Anyone who remembers the complicated dances Lenny Curry and Alvin Brown did around this issue eight years ago, complete with endless hedging and double talk, would expect the final two candidates to address the issue in the same spotlight.

This is an especially salient issue given that in Tallahassee, LGBT rights are being rolled back. Sen. Clay Yarborough, a non-lawyer who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee for whatever reason, has legislation expanding the Parental Rights in Education law through eighth grade from its current third grade. Central to his ambitious bill is a directive that teachers cannot be forced to use students’ pronouns unless they accord with the gender that person was assigned at birth.

It’s easy to imagine a state law preempting local ordinances, perhaps even as a committee amendment to existing language rolling back LGBT rights or as a formal bill next year as the GOP keeps leveraging its supermajority in the House and Senate.

Meanwhile, the Florida Board of Medicine just approved a rule banning minors from starting hormone therapy or taking reversible puberty blockers. Gender reassignment surgery for minors is banned also from this point forward. 

The 20th century was a time when the prevailing myth was that equality for all was a goal, and progress would continue to be made despite problems along the way. That quaint era is gone, chewed up in an ongoing and accelerating culture war that seems to camouflage a declining standard of living for more of those reading this than not. And it’s possible that the HRO could be one of many casualties along the way. 

Will local leaders stand up for it in the meantime? That’s an open question at this writing.

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor

A.G. Gancarski's columns were a staple in Folio Weekly for nearly two decades, and he has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes about the intersection of state and local politics and policy.

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor

A.G. Gancarski's columns were a staple in Folio Weekly for nearly two decades, and he has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes about the intersection of state and local politics and policy.

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