LGBT Anti-Discrimination Measure In Trouble

Feb 8, 2016

Crowded committee chambers for LGBT non-discrimination measure.
Credit Florida Channel

Same sex couples can marry, but in Florida members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community lack a number of basic protections against discrimination.  A measure that would change that is in trouble.

Two weeks ago, it was all Sen. Miguel Diaz De La Portilla (R-Miami) could to do keep the peace in his Senate Judiciary Committee.In that earlier hearing for this year’s LGBT non-discrimination bill time ran short—it was more of the same in committee Monday.    

The key is what’s known as protected categories—that list HR reps can recite backwards and forward in their sleep: race, color, creed, sex, pregnancy, physical disability, and national origin.  Any discrimination rooted in one of those categories is prohibited when it comes to things like housing and public accommodation.

“This is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue,” Sen. Joseph Abruzzo (D-Wellington) says.  “This is not a liberal issue or a conservative issue, this is a bill that has Republican support, Democratic support—support from across all walks of life.”

“This is about moving civil rights forward in our time.”

Under the provisions of Abruzzo’s bill there would be two new protected categories: sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.  Without those additions, it is perfectly legal for an employer to fire someone for being gay.  Abruzzo argues that policy discourages talented workers from coming to Florida and encourages existing residents to leave. 

“Florida must provide an environment that is welcome to all,” he says.  “The pervasive discrimination in employment that gay and transgender Floridians suffer is detrimental to the public good and results in qualified individuals unfairly denied the right to work.”

But in a kind of slight return to last year’s so-called bathroom bill, some lawmakers raised objections tied to measure’s impact on public accommodations where varying levels of privacy are expected.

“This bill would allow an anatomical male to undress in a—as a public accommodation—in a gymnasium,” Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) says.

Supporters argue gyms don’t actually fall within the state’s public accommodations, but lawmakers offered other hypotheticals that likely would.  Meanwhile John Tonnison the Chief Information Officer for Tech Data Corporation dismisses that line of argument entirely.

“There’s been a lot of discussion here today about a number of theoreticals—hypotheticals—I think that’s a great conversation when there are no facts.  There’s a whole bunch of facts,” Tonnison says.

And he backs Abruzzo’s claims that including LGBT protections will be good for business.

“Signaling Florida as an open and equality focused state is an important part we believe in developing the talent pool the talent attraction and investment in our state,” he says.

Others objected to an earlier version of Abruzzo’s work that would have extended to perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.  In response, Republican Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs) drafted a broad set of revisions.

“If a business is being asserted to have discriminated based on a perception of many of these listed traits, then obviously what would happen is there would be potentially just an open door, a lot of litigation and certainly a lot of confusion so throughout the bill I have removed the reference to a perception,” Simmons says.

Despite those changes, lawmakers spent well over an hour hashing out public accommodation arguments—accomplishing little more than pushing the hands of the clock forward.  After a rushed, shaky progression of amendment votes, the committee adopted Simmons’ revisions.  But when it came to the full bill, the vote was tied—meaning the measure failed.  After a handful of motions the no-vote lawmakers agreed to place the matter on Tuesday’s agenda for reconsideration. 

But even if supporters can develop winning language between now and then the proposal is still in serious trouble.  Three further committee stops remain, and there’s only a month of session left.