Abel Harding: In Jacksonville, discrimination based on sexual orientation remains legal

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The following is a guest post from Abel Harding, a former spokesman for Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown.

For years, Jacksonville has been the only major metropolitan area in Florida that failed to offer workplace and housing protections for gays and lesbians. And, after a close vote by its City Council Wednesday night, the self-styled “Bold New City of the South” retained its status as the largest city in the country where discrimination based on sexual orientation remains legal. By a 10-9 vote, the council beat back an effort by Warren Jones, a respected African-American veteran of the council, to amend the city’s human rights ordinance to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Jones’ bill had garnered broad support among the city’s business interest, including the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Jacksonville Civic Council, an organization composed of the region’s leading business executives. It was also endorsed by former mayors John Peyton and John Delaney, both Republicans, and received a favorable nod from Felipe J. Estevez, Bishop of St. Augustine.

“There’s discrimination,” said Councilman Robin Lumb, a Republican, told the crowd gathered Wednesday night. “But does it rise to a level that it justifies equal protection under the law?”

Lumb, who hails from the city’s Riverside neighborhood, which has a sizeable gay and lesbian population, tempered his remarks to avoid invoking religious beliefs, but not all of his colleagues followed suit. Council members Don Redman and Clay Yarborough, both Republicans and members of the city’s powerful First Baptist Church, said their opposition was derived from the Bible. Redman railed against gays during the debate before the vote, publicly berating them for “recruiting” gays in the city’s high schools. His pastor, Mac Brunson, was one of the most ardent opponents of the measure.

Republicans on the council split their votes, with six in favor and seven opposed. The swing vote proved to be Johnny Gaffney, an African-American Democrat who had voted for the measure in committee. Gaffney was the last member to vote and surprised many by switching his vote.“We have a lot coming at us, and obviously, stuff can get a little confusing up there,” Gaffney told the Florida Times-Union after the vote. He called any talk of potential deals to persuade him to switch his vote, “insulting.”

The vote has provoked an outcry from many, including many of the supporters who worked on the 2011 mayoral campaign of Alvin Brown, a Democrat who pulled off an upset to become the city’s first African-American mayor. Despite promises of support for the measure during his campaign, Brown remained silent on the issue throughout the months-long debate, refusing to take a stance. His office is now battling allegations he played a key role in persuading Gaffney and fellow Democrat Reggie Brown to oppose the legislation.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.