Bills before the Legislature this session are aimed at ending discrimination against pregnant women and LGBT people. The measures are among several aimed at fairness and equality—but the biggest hurdle for some of them may be getting a first hearing.
Committees in both chambers have passed one bill with little debate or opposition. It would add pregnant women to the protected classes covered under Florida’s Civil Rights Act. When the same measure didn’t pass last year, Lori Berman (D-Lantana) told reporters she’d be sponsoring it again.
“It’s hard to believe that as we’re standing before you today there are no laws on the books in Florida that protect a pregnant woman from discrimination in employment, lodging or dining,” she said in November.
Berman points out federal anti-discrimination laws have covered pregnant women since the 1970s—and the inconsistency with Florida law has caused legal confusion, including in a case currently before the state Supreme Court.
Although the pregnancy discrimination bill is moving closer to floor votes, another measure aimed at protecting LGBT people hasn’t had a hearing despite bipartisan sponsorship in the House. One sponsor is Rep. Joe Saunders (D-Orlando), one of the Legislature’s first openly gay lawmakers. He says the bill prohibiting employers or landlords from treating gay and transgendered people differently would pass the full House if the vote were today.
“Those votes are there, and I think 10 years ago they probably weren’t. So it’s not about where the members are anymore, it’s not about where the public is anymore. It’s not about whether or not this is good policy and that debate,” he says. “It’s about the process and will the process open up in a way that really lets this issue see the light and see the sunshine and the debate.”
The anti-gay-discrimination law, billed as the Competitive Workforce Act, is now before the House Civil Justice Committee chaired by Larry Metz (R-Groveland). Metz’s aide says he doesn’t comment on bills until he schedules them.
Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key West) is Saunders’s primary co-sponsor.
“Our goal is to at least get a committee hearing. Maybe we won’t pass it this year,” she says.
Despite the lack of movement on the bill, she says she’s encouraged by a business coalition including Disney and Darden Restaurants announcing support for the measure.
“And I think that sent a message certainly to the pro-business folks in the Legislature and leadership. We’re all pro-business. We’re the pro-business party,” she says.
Raschein has persuaded six Republicans to sign on as co-sponsors. She says when talking to colleagues she reminds them of the youngest members of their party.
“I speak to a lot of young Republicans. And they are sort of disenfranchised or disheartened on this issue,” she says. “It’s not even an issue among them. Their friends are gay or they know gay people or family members; it doesn’t even really come up. That’s just how people are.”
And another bill aimed at expanding gay rights by creating a statewide domestic partnership registry is facing similar inertia—it’s also assigned to Metz’s House Civil Justice Committee, the same committee where the bill died last year.
But Saunders insists change is possible. He says when he feels impatient, he reminds himself the state used to have a ban on gay adoption.
“And that ban is gone. It’s gone,” he says. “So there are all kinds of moments we can point to even in Florida where we’ve seen things change, and I think that change is coming. I think we’ve seen unprecedented momentum.”
The domestic partner registry bill, dubbed the Florida Families Act, was granted its first committee hearing last year after almost a decade of Democratic sponsorship. This year, it returns with its first-ever Republican primary co-sponsor, Rep. Dave Hood (R-Daytona Beach Shores).