Jacksonville City Council finally approves Human Rights Ordinance

By : Billy Manes
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JACKSONVILLE – It was a Valentine’s Day to remember as the Jacksonville City Council, after years of effort, pushed through additions to the already existing Human Rights Ordinance that will now recognize sexual orientation and gender identity. Specifically, the ordinance protects minorities in housing and employment, among other necessities, and more broadly signals a change in Jacksonville’s historically conservative culture.

“Jacksonville is such a conservative area. It really is part of the deep south in the way that most cities in Florida are not,” Equality Florida field director Amber Paoloemilio says. “There really is a tangible shift and it’s really because of the community we’ve been building over the past few years.

Advocacy group Equality Florida said the LGBTQ community, plus a coalition of over 700 small businesses and 200 faith leaders, has demonstrated the urgent need for these protections so that everyone, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, has the opportunity to earn a living and provide for their families, according to a statement

“After years of hard work and courageous advocacy, Jacksonville has sent a clear message to Florida and the entire country that discrimination of any kind is wrong and that LGBTQ people are welcomed and accepted,” said Amber Paoloemilio, field director of Equality Florida in a statement.

The vote wasn’t unanimous. In fact, Mayor Lenny Curry, who effectively carries a deciding vote on the city’s 19-member dais, is allowing it to pass without signing it. Curry’s inaction will carry its own political caveats, but will not upset the 12-6 victory for LGBTQ advocates.

“It still feels unanimous to us,” Paolomeilio says. “We have 19 city council members, but we were able to organize our donors and supporters in the LGBTQ hubs – the gayborhoods. It really took a lot of coalition building. There were 205 faith leaders and over 700 small biz owners from all over the city, from the most rural to the most urban. Their presence allowed us to demonstrate that this wasn’t a niche issue.”

But those who may be considered niche members of the population of approximately one million in Jacksonville appreciate the recognition.

“As a transgender woman, I applaud the efforts of the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality, Equality Florida, and the Jacksonville City Council for helping our city take an important step today,” said Tricia Russell, Ssatewide Equality Florida board member and longtime Jacksonville resident, in a press release. “Transgender people face a disproportionate amount of discrimination and harassment in our community and our state. This law will help ensure that all people, regardless if they are gay or transgender, will have the opportunity to earn a living, rent a hotel room, or go to a restaurant without fear of being discriminated against.”

“It’s as important as changing the culture of that society and humanizing a community,” Equality Florida chief executive officer Nadine Smith says.

Not everything has changed, though. According to Equality Florida, the council passed a separate amendment protecting religious groups playing into the frequently noted religious freedom trend. So, in effect, the group argues, the battle is just beginning.

“As we celebrate the passage of an updated Human Rights Ordinance, we do so knowing that while this bill is not perfect, it is a historic step to ensure that all Jacksonville residents can live, work, and play in this great city without the threat of discrimination. I feel confident that the residents of Jacksonville and the city council will use the incredible energy and passion from our supporters to continue advocating for truly equal protection under the law,” Paoloemilio said in a statement.

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