TAMPA — Hillsborough County took a first step Wednesday toward enshrining civil rights protections in county law for people who are gay, lesbian and transgender.
By a unanimous vote, county commissioners instructed the county attorney's office to amend the Human Rights Ordinance to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
If the commission gives final approval to an ordinance, d ordinance, it will prohibit discrimination in employment, public accommodations, real estate transactions, and county contracting and procurement.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who sponsored the amendment, asked his fellow commissioners to put aside partisanship and do what's right for all the county residents.
“It is simply about equality, about fairness, about people and good public policy,” Beckner said. “And most of all, it's the right thing to do.”
Most other commissioners said they backed the principles underlying the amendment.
However, Commissioner Ken Hagan said the commission should allow the county's Human Relations Board to make recommendations on language to be used. Hagan pointed out that the Human Relations Board had suggested a study on the subject in a 2013 letter to commissioners.
Beckner accepted the suggestion so long as the county attorney's office could start working immediately drafting a new amendment. No date was set for a final vote.
The 7-0 vote signaled a sharp change in direction from earlier actions by this group of commissioners as well as previous boards. In 2005, a board that included Hagan and Sharpe passed a ban on county recognition of gay rights events and displays. Last year, commissioners reversed that earlier vote.
Adding civil rights protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people also repudiates a 1995 vote that specifically excluded them. The vote that night was held after a five-hour hearing at the Florida State Fairgrounds during which gays were derided as “sodomites” who worked for the devil.
A sign outside the building warned that firearms, knives and other weapons were prohibited. Before the meeting, the sheriff's office scoured the area with bomb-sniffing dogs.
In contrast, Wednesday's meeting was civil with no name-calling. Some of those opposing the amendment even took pains to say they didn't hate anyone; they were only following the tenets of their religion.
The commission chambers were packed for the discussion and more than 20 people spoke. Most opponents based their arguments on religion, some citing specific passages of the Bible.
Travis Smith, pastor of Hillsdale Baptist Church in Citrus Park, read Bible passages from Leviticus and Romans that said homosexuality was an “abomination” and against “God's purpose.”
Smith and other opponents also predicted the revamped ordinance would spur lawsuits aimed at employers who, because of their religious beliefs, refuse to hire homosexuals.
“This will invite lawsuits against small-business owners who embrace the right and liberty to practice their convictions and hire who they choose,” Smith said.
Another pastor, Ross Scudder of the Metropolitan Community Church in Tampa, supported the amendment, saying it would make Hillsborough “an inclusive, strong, diverse community.”
Many supporters of the ordinance identified themselves as gay, lesbian or transgender. Ed Lally said he and his husband moved to Tampa to work and felt comfortable here because provisions in the city's human rights ordinance protect gays and lesbians.
“We don't have to fear losing our jobs due to prejudice,” Lally said. “If this had not been the case, we would have moved a long time ago.”
When it came time for Beckner to introduce the amendment, he first called on Garry Sasso, president and CEO of the Carlton Fields law firm, to speak. Sasso said Carlton Fields, Tampa's largest local law firm,
has benefitted from decades of inclusiveness in hiring. The firm was the first in Tampa to hire female, Jewish and black lawyers, he said, and 20 years ago the firm changed employment policy to ensure gay and lesbian lawyers would be hired.
“We have to compete with communities and law firms that are inclusive and diverse,” Sasso said. “Were we to exclude individuals from the gay and lesbian community ... we would shoot ourselves in the foot as a business.”
Sasso said he had discussed the issue with a number of local business leaders who were concerned that the commission would not pass the amendment, thus hurting efforts to diversify the county's economy.
Sasso read letters from executives with the areas three professional sports teams — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rays and Lightning — urging the commission to support the ordinance.
“Enacting this ordinance is critical to our county's overall economic development,” Sasso said.
In an interview with the Tribune Wednesday, Joe Chillura, one of the four commissioners who voted to remove gay rights protections in 1995, reflected the change in tenor surrounding the national debate over the last two decades. Chillura said he can live with the changes proposed for the Human Rights ordinance.
“Not discriminating against anybody is a good thing for the community,” he said. “If gays and lesbians “are competent in their performance and they are viable members of our community, how can you be opposed to that?”