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LGBT anti-discrimination bill on life support after contentious vote

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A bill to prohibit gender- and sexuality-based workplace discrimination died momentarily in a Senate panel on judicial affairs, before being brought back to life by legislative maneuvering.

Monday afternoon’s meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee was likely the most controversial of 2016, in both form and in substance.

Senators took up SB 120, a bill supporters are calling the “Competitive Workforce Act,” which aims to amend the state’s Civil Rights Act to prohibit employment, retail and other discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The debate largely focused on “other discrimination” when it came to opponents’ testimony.

St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes put the point bluntly in an opening question that prefigured much the following debate.

“If I go into Gold’s Gym and someone of a transgender nature is dressing in the women’s locker room, is that something that would be covered under your bill?” asked Brandes.

Bill sponsor Sen. Joe Abruzzo, a Palm Beach Democrat, and a small group from Equality Florida on hand to help him advocate for the bill spent most of the next two hours dealing with that question in some form or another.

Harking back to last year’s kerfuffle over a so-called “bathroom bill,” the debate had all the elements for a Capitol-watcher’s delight: splintering factions within the GOP majority, more than 50 appearance cards, and procedural moves including a hard time-certain vote deadline lawmakers whizzed right past.

Social conservatives Sen. Kelli Stargel and Sen. Wilton Simpson joined Brandes in raising questions over whether the law would give male sexual predators legal license to invade spaces reserved for “biological” women, as opposed to women “with male parts” as several lawmakers put it.

Prefacing his comments with a remark that “not a soul” on the panel favors discrimination, “this part of the bill could turn into a lot of weirdos doing weird things in public bathrooms, with men or women,” said Simpson. He added he is concerned about a cottage industry of lawsuits popping up to take advantage of business owners who are out of compliance with the measure.

Abruzzo originally said such concerns are not contemplated in the bill, but later agreed that language relating to public accommodations would indeed involve bathrooms and locker rooms.

A lengthy strike-all amendment by Republican Sen. David Simmons – drafted, he said, at the behest of multiple senators in order to allay exactly such concerns – did little to un-muddy the waters during the debate. Panelists disagreed over whether the bill would change the existing rules. Simmons said his amendment strengthens religious freedom protections by exempting religious organizations, who may continue to discriminate against gays, lesbians, and transgender Floridians if doing so based on a “sincerely held belief.”

The amendment, which was adopted in a close and hurried vote near the end of the meeting, also removes gender “expression” from the protected categories, responding to concerns from several Republican senators that the bill’s prohibition against discrimination based on “perceived” gender identity was too broad.

The bill as amended calls for “clear evidence” of medical history that indicates a “consistent and uniform assertion” of a gender in order to use public accommodations designated for that gender, for instance treatment from a gynecologist. How that would be enforced remained unclear.

Margate Sen. Jeremy Ring said the committee was losing sight of the main thrust of the bill – eliminating workplace discrimination – by “getting caught up in bathrooms,” though related debate dominated the meeting nonetheless.

Abruzzo said if employers had a gender specific employee, they would still legally be allowed to let them go under the proposal. He added a claim that in the 37 municipalities and nearly two dozen states that have adopted similar laws, excessive litigation has not been a problem.

Dozens of testifiers spoke, religiously affiliated speakers in opposition composing a narrow majority. One speaker said the bill perpetuates  “perpetuating misguided thinking” by unmooring sexual identity from “nature and reality.” Another waived her speaking time in opposition, claiming to speak on behalf of Jesus.

An amendment by Stargel that would be exempted vast swaths of businesses from the proposal died on a rare tie before the Simmons amendment was adopted by a one-vote margin. The bill as amended coincidentally died on a tie as well, though Sen. Ring temporarily postponed the bill using a “motion to reconsider,” a rare legislative maneuver which will allow the committee to take up the bill again.

A House companion bill has not yet been taken up by its first committee. Should Senate Judiciary approve the bill when it meets again Tuesday, it would still face a three-panel gamut of remaining committee stops.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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