The Board of Hillsborough County Commissioners took a major step towards granting legal protections against discrimination towards the LGBT community today, voting unanimously in support of an amendment that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in connection with employment, public accommodations, real estate transactions and County contracting and procurement.
The vote calls for the county attorney's office to draft a law and then have it reviewed by the county's Human Rights Board. It will then come back before the BOCC for a public hearing and a final vote.
"For 29 states including the state of Florida, it is perfectly legal to fire an individual because of their sexual orientation, and 34 states, including Florida, for their gender identity," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who brought forth the motion to include the LGBT community back into the County's Human Relations Board. "Ladies and gentleman and board members, I would submit to you in 2014, no hard-working American trying to provide a living to provide for his or her family, should have to live in fear of being fired from their job for reasons that have nothing to do with their job performance."
The board's vote is the second in little over a year that addresses a previous wound to the LGBT community in Hillsborough County. Last year the same commissioners voted unanimously to repeal their 2005 ban on gay pride sponsored by former Commissioner Ronda Storms. After that 2013 vote, activists in the movement pointed towards correcting the Human Rights Ordinance, where Hillsborough is by far the biggest county in Florida that excluds gays, lesbians and transgendered people from discrimination.
The Hillsborough County Human Rights Ordinance was first passed in 1988. Protections against discrimination towards gays, lesbians and transgendered people were added in 1991, but then repealed in 1995. It currently includes protections against discrimination because of race, color, sex, age, national origin, religion, disability and marital status.
Public comment on the issue took place for approximately an hour before the board debated the issue amongst themselves, and as is always the case, there was intense and passionate comments made by advocates and critics of the measure. Most of the opponents said it was against Christianity, and therefore should not be passed.
"Being a Christian is being polar opposite to this ordinance," proclaimed Darren Nesberg.
"This country was founded on biblical principles," said Paul Waldmiller. "We know that in this country with God, things will go better for us. If we reject God things will get worse for us."
"The reality is maybe there is a political movement to make change," said Travis Smith, Pastor of Hillsdale Church in Citrus Park. But he warned that "God has not changed," adding for good measure that "homosexuality is against nature."
But there were just as many if not more supporters for the ordinance.
Seminole Heights activist Susan Long said she was born and remains a "straight lady," but even with a PhD in Finance, back in the 1960's and 70's she was discriminated against because she was a woman. "It's just wrong to discriminate," she said, regardless of gender, skin color or sexual orientation.
Pete Johnson, a frequent visitor at Tampa City Council meetings (usually complaining about the city's failure to bust code enforcement violators), said discrimination "has got to be banned from the dictionary." Adding that he had been gay for all of his 63 years on Earth and HIV-positive for over 30 years, "I've lost jobs, I've lost friends, I've lost associates. Discrimination has to be banned regardless of where we live."
Demonstrating how advocating for LGBT rights in 2014 is a relatively mainstream act, Gary Sasso with the law firm of Carlton Fields Jorden read letters from executives of Tampa Bay's three major sports franchises - the Rays, Buccaneers and Lightning - all of whom endorsed the Beckner initiative.
Following Sasso was Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt, who said "no one should ever have to come into our community fearful of losing jobs or housing because of discrimination."
After introducing the proposal, County Commissioner Les Miller immediately interjected. "As a deacon who prays to God, I second the motion."
But as observers leaned in to observe how some of the other board members would come down on the vote, Commissioner Ken Hagan said if the board wanted to move forward with the measure, they should adopt their regular procedure and bring the measure before an advisory board, in this case the Human Relations Board.
"It's not a matter if the HRB would support the provision....but according to Chip (Fletcher, the county attorney), there are different definitions and variations of language in the ordinance that needs to be considered," Hagan said, and kicked the measure back to Beckner.
Beckner said he had no issue with the request, and the board then voted 7-0 to move it forward.
"I think Commissioner Beckner did a great job in sidestepping what could have been a lengthy detour," said Equality Florida executive director Nadine Smith immediately after the vote, referring to the call to go to the HRB. "The Human Relations Board has been asking to take this on for awhile, so I thought the Commissioner ensured that the process would move forward, the drafting would begin, and I would say that the Human Relations Board's is eager to step forward and push this."
The Human Relations Board meets every second Tuesday of the month, which means their next meeting would be August 12 if they maintain their usual schedule. The BOCC could theoretically then vote on the measure at their August 20 meeting.