City Hall filled with red in support of Human Rights Ordinance

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Student Government Association President for UWF, Daniel McBurney, speaks on behalf of the Human Rights Ordinance in discussion at City Hall on Monday.
Photo by Cassie Rhame.

Cassie Rhame

Staff Writer

Pensacola City Hall was filled with passionate advocates Monday as it held a workshop discussing the adoption of a Human Rights Ordinance proposed by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).

The proposed ordinance “would prohibit discrimination in work and public accommodations based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and military status,” according to the Facebook page. Sponsored by Councilman Brian Spencer, the proposal brought in heavy debate.

Advocates and non-supporters alike sat outside the conference room for three hours awaiting the discussion. More than 100 people flooded the halls, and council was forced to move this portion of the workshop to a larger room.

Once the human rights portion began, the room was satiated with red as supporters dressed in the color to show their approval of the ordinance.

“I came in support because the more people you have, the more impactful it will be,” said Christian Sutton, UWF advertising coordinator of the Gay-Straight Alliance and pre-law sophomore.

Currently, Florida law protects against discrimination, but the issue, as those who support the ordinance said, comes with its lack of being fully inclusive. The prime change that would come into effect with the proposal is the expansion of the definition of public accommodation.

The definition of public accommodation is vague with a limited list of protections and does not cover all public places.

“People can technically be discriminated against by public places like hotels, restaurants and bakeries,” ACLU coordinator Sara Latshaw said during her presentation.

Latshaw also said that close to 60 percent of Floridians currently are covered by an inclusive Human Rights Ordinance similar to the one being proposed. A specific number was not given of the amount of complaints received by the ACLU for discrimination, but Latshaw said most stem from housing.

Even though Latshaw admitted an increase in complaints had not occurred in Pensacola, she also stated a problem with prejudice is always present. She made sure to clarify that religious organizations and institutions would be protected in the ordinance.

“This [ordinance] allows us to better track where the issue lies and lends itself to clarity,” Latshaw said.

“I am mostly concerned with job discrimination and living situations,” said Emily Williams, UWF graduate in gender studies. “I haven’t run into a lot around here, but I just want this passed to make it easier for people who do come across it.”

“Fair housing passed in 1983, which is why it only covers physical disabilities,” Councilwoman Sherri Myers said. “This means people with mental disabilities can be discriminated against. We need to make sure we have an inclusive process that protects those who can file a claim.”

Myers, who has advocated for human rights throughout her career, was in support of the concept, but said she had concerns regarding the private cause of action portion.

“I see things that are lacking in this … one is fines. What are the penalties?” Myers said.  “I want effective enforcement.”

The proposal would also add sexual orientation to be protected individually as opposed to being broadly covered under “sex” explicitly as it is now. A sexual orientation claim that does not involve harassment, for example, currently is not guarded against.

Many public members shared personal testimonies of being denied service by hospitals and homeless shelters for their sexual orientation.

Although those dressed in red were overwhelming in number, not everyone was there to show support.

The first member of the public spoke ill of the ordinance and compared the red clothing to “the blood shed by Jesus Christ.”

Harry and Merry Beatty from Navarre came nearly 40 miles to speak against the proposal. “The good Lord has the final say,” Harry said. “Just because the world is changing doesn’t mean I need to go with the conformity.”  

The most concerning factor of the ordinance as expressed by the opposing public was the introduction of unisex bathrooms in these places of accommodation.   

“I got several calls today, and most of them were concerned with bathroom use,” Councilman Larry Johnson said. “I do not believe being transgender makes someone a pedophile or predator … I support this ordinance.”

The opposition tried to make clear that they are not against the transgender community, but are simply concerned for the children. Many expressed anxiety at the possibility of pedophiles dressing as a transgender to gain access to the opposite sex’s bathroom.

Supporters in red were angered by this fear, and said they feel it is simple discrimination.

Much of the disapproval came from those like the Beatty family as well, worried about the clash between religious freedom and sexual orientation. “It’s unnatural,” Merry said. “I don’t want to be forced to go against my beliefs, and I would not hire someone like that.”

Pensacola public figure and former priest Nathan Monk stood before the city council and shared his disappointment in those opposing the ordinance.

“If you say that you don’t hate someone while punching them in the face, it’s hate,” Monk said. “Fortunately for everyone here, your religion has absolutely no bearing on the law.

“I have full faith in our council that they will make the right decision … people like those on my left, who have failed time and time again just like you will fail now,” Monk said.

Daniel McBurney, UWF student body president, and Devin Cole, president of the UWF Gay-Straight Alliance, attended in support of the ordinance, as did UWF professor of psychology Susan Walch.

“I’m here for social justice,” Walch said. “I think this is a step towards making Pensacola a place that is inclusive of everyone and respectful of humanity.”

The ordinance will be voted on as early as next month, but has more discussion and work to be done. To follow the progress, follow the ACLU’s Facebook page.

You can view a video of the workshop on the City Council’s website.