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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jan. 5, 201712:00 PM EST

New anti-discrimination bill exempts religious groups and small businesses

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

If all goes according to plan, Feb. 14 will be marked in Jacksonville as something more than just Valentine’s Day.

That’s when City Council could vote on the latest version of legislation that would expand the city’s anti-discrimination laws to include protection for the LGBTQ community.

Council members Aaron Bowman, Tommy Hazouri and Jim Love co-sponsored a human rights ordinance filed Wednesday that distills from 40 pages to not quite five pages previous legislation that was defeated or withdrawn since 2012.

Bowman, who called the meeting to gather support among his colleagues for the bill, said he’s been asked by many people what’s different about this proposal compared to the others.

Attorney Jimmy Midyette, a member of the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality who helped draft the ordinance, explained how it evolved from 2012 to its current form.

He said it’s the culmination of best practices adopted by other cities and input from previous council action and the public.

The bill provides protection based on “sexual orientation and gender identity” as they apply to discrimination, he said.

Sexual orientation is defined as “an individual’s actual or perceived orientation as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.”

Gender identity means the “gender-related identity, appearance or expression of a person.”

In addition, gender identity must be demonstrated by “consistent and uniform assertion” and “sincerely held” and shall not be asserted for any improper, illegal or criminal purpose.

Businesses would be allowed under the proposed ordinance to provide single-sex restrooms, locker rooms, showers, dormitory lodging and similar facilities that are by nature distinctly private.

Companies with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt from the ordinance.

Also exempt would be religious organizations, including churches, synagogues, mosques, schools of religious instruction and nonprofits affiliated with them.

In addition to the Office of General Counsel, Midyette said the ordinance was vetted by Buddy Schulz of Holland & Knight and Fred Franklin of Rogers Towers.

Bowman pointed out that since the previous bill was withdrawn in March, President-elect Donald Trump has come out in favor of LGBTQ protection and Mayor Lenny Curry put in place an anti-discrimination policy that also was adopted by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, city independent authorities and the Duval County School Board.

In addition, legislation adopted in North Carolina that was seen as unfriendly to the LGBTQ community “has been a disaster,” Bowman said, in terms of the state losing business — and even sports and entertainment — opportunities.

“There is no spot in this world to discriminate against people,” he said.

The new ordinance has the support of the business community.

JAX Chamber Chair Darnell Smith, Florida Blue market president for the Florida region, described it as “a Jacksonville solution” with a “tenor and tone of togetherness” that will allow all people to be protected while “no one will have their religious and personal rights taken away from them.”

Baptist Health CEO Hugh Greene also supports the proposal. He said not having an anti-discrimination law on the books “casts a shadow” over the city.

“This is long past due in our community,” said Greene.

Council President Lori Boyer said it is her goal to “see this go through the committee process deliberately” since “we’ve had a long time to think and debate.”

Bowman said he doesn’t anticipate the upcoming discussion to be based on party affiliation or partisanship.

He’s confident the third try at an anti-discrimination ordinance will gain the support of at least 10 council members when the bill is brought up for a vote.

“We have three co-introducers,” Bowman said. “We wouldn’t have been here today if we weren’t confident we have the other seven.”

Ten votes are necessary to carry a bill on the 19-member council.

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