One Town's Battle Over Rights

Sign for Atlantic Beach, Florida

One Town's Battle Over Rights
| Published Sunday, March 30, 2014 |

By Russ Christopher
Thursday Review guest contributor

The City Council of Atlantic Beach, Florida recently brought a contentious “Human Rights Ordinance” into a public workshop discussion before a crowd of 50 people. Proponents say the bill would protect homosexual and transgender individuals from discrimination, particularly by residents and private businesses. Citizens opposed cited that it would seriously endanger religious freedoms and could be used to create a “right to sue” scenario which could harm the reputations of individuals and small businesses.

In the workshop, Council officers discussed various aspects of the bill, including repercussions such as gender definitions and bathroom issues, as well as negative effects of similar cases nationally. Commissioner Jimmy Hill highlighted cases of abuse of similar ordinances and the chilling effect on one’s speech.

“If we pass this bill, what I say would put me at risk. If I say, this person is a pervert hiding behind an ordinance, the law we are enacting makes me prove my own belief in court” said Commissioner Hill.

Atlantic Beach city attorney Richard Komando said he couldn’t be sure this particular ordinance won’t be used against others in this way.

A majority of the residents sitting-in were in support. Equality Florida and the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition members made strong emotional appeals for the bill, such as citing individual’s personal experiences of discrimination against homosexuals and transgender people.

Wells Todd of Atlantic Beach, a member of the Progressive Coalition, expressed his concern for civil rights. “I’m for this ordinance because the LGBT community has long since been in need of protection against housing and job discrimination. As a 67 year old African American male, I have gone through discrimination, been called the N-word more than once in my lifetime and have been a long time fighter for civil rights. The LGBT community, not only in Jacksonville, but nationwide and around the world, are under serious attack by right-wing fundamentalists.”

Others explained their personal stories of discrimination. One man shared that he was charged more at a barbershop because the store owner found out he was homosexual. Mayor Carolyn Woods and Commissioner Maria Mark urged patience and a thorough examination of the details of the bill for the sake of those they believe to be at risk. A representative from Equality Florida told the Council the group had a signed petition from a large group of citizens as well.

Despite the many personal stories of discrimination offered, supporters of the bill offered little in the way of empathy or understanding regarding the concerns of those opposed to the legislation: the bill could be potentially harmful to local small businesses and especially individuals of religious faith. In the public comments, the focus was completely on their experience of being victims at times, and resignation that this was not an issue of their choice. Some in the crowd bristled against opponents of the bill, taking it as a personal rejection of their experience.

Like elected officials in many states and cities, Commissioner Johnathan Dougherty of Atlantic Beach was concerned about guarding against discrimination but also protecting religious freedoms.

“While it is important to protect all citizens from unwarranted discrimination it is also important to protect the religious freedoms and moral beliefs and practices of individuals. I truly believe this is an issue that should be handled on a state or national level and I am sure that eventually the courts will set precedent overriding any laws that we make. In the interim it is my goal to find a proper balance and not create a piece of legislation that violates the rights of one group in order to protect the rights of another,” said Dougherty.

Others opposed sought to defend religious freedom of conscience, traditional marriage, and the rights of business owners and individuals to be protected from abusive lawsuits without grounds.

“I am against this bill because it will eventually result in the abolition of traditional marriage” said Sharon Krause, a Westside resident.

“Six homosexual couples filed suit (in January) to overturn Florida’s Marriage Protection Amendment,” Krause said, “which passed by 62% of the vote in 2008. Eighteen states have also adopted similar amendments modeled after the Defense of Marriage Act at the federal level. Eighty-five percent of Americans feel business owners should not be forced to violate their faith to participate in same sex weddings.”

Krause cited the abuses of such lawsuits against individuals like Baronell Stutzman, who was sued for refusing to sell flowers for a homosexual couples wedding.

Paul Crandall, an Atlantic Beach resident and business owner, was also vocal in opposition.

“Every person is protected under the constitution,” Crandall said, “This creates splinter groups and unequal representation.” Crandall added that “any person could be put into position of a lawsuit, without grounds, and then be put into a position where they have to defend themselves, which could harm their reputation or their business...if a person doesn’t have the means, they could be destroyed publicly.”

Human Rights Ordinance or Anti-Conscience Weapon?

State governments and city councils across the country are debating various “Human Rights Ordinances” pitting pro-homosexual activists against traditional family advocates. Cases in Arizona and New Mexico have turned national attention to the issue. Proponents of the progressive legislation say it’s necessary to combat discrimination of gay, lesbian and transgender individuals. Opponents charge it’s the latest assault on individual liberties, especially targeting Christian businesses and individuals and opening up new pathways for lawsuits and widespread legal action.

In a recent column for LifeSite news, Albert Mohler highlights some of the key aspects from both sides of the argument.

"Those pushing for the legalization of same-sex marriage," Mohler says, "are relentless in their insistence that these bills would violate the civil rights of same-sex couples. They brilliantly employed arguments from the civil rights in their push for same-sex marriage, and they now employ similar arguments in their opposition to bills that would protect the consciences of those opposed to same-sex marriage. They claim that the rights of gays and lesbians and others in the LGBT community are equivalent to the rights rightly demanded by African Americans in the civil rights movement. Thus far, they have been stunningly successful in persuading courts to accept their argument."

Mohler continues to describe the inevitable clash when special legal protections for sexual orientation collide with individual rights of liberty and conscience surrounding wedding ceremonies celebrated by the LGBT community.

"Photographers, makers of artistic wedding cakes, and florists," says Mohler, "are now told that they must participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies, and this is a direct violation of their religiously-based conviction that they should lend no active support of a same-sex wedding. Based upon their biblical convictions, they do not believe that a same-sex wedding can be legitimate in any Christian perspective and that their active participation can only be read as a forced endorsement of what they believe to be fundamentally wrong and sinful. They remember the words of the Apostle Paul when he indicted both those who commit sin and those 'who give approval to those who practice them.'”

John Stemberger, Director of Florida Family Policy Council, views the measures as a serious threat. “Gay rights activists are promoting these ordinances which represent the most dangerous proposals being distributed today,” Stemberger said, “It directly encroaches upon first amendment liberties and is a violation of the right of conscience.”

“It is a weapon used to punish those who have a different view,” Stemberger adds. “Where is the greater injustice? Forcing an individual to engage in a commercial transaction.”

Stemberger also cited the New Mexico Elane photography case where a photographer was ruled against by the state Human Rights Commission for declining to do business with a homosexual couple intending to have a marriage ceremony. In Arizona this year there has been a similar case regarding RFRA.

“It’s the final frontier,” Stemberger adds. “It’s not enough to be let alone, this is forcing and intimidating society to buy into an agenda by re-defining the human experience of sexuality.”

Stemberger believes the movement to enforce this new legalism has strong support from the current Administration, noting President Barack Obama’s EEOC appointee Chai Feldblum’s comments regarding the topic of liberty.

“Sexual liberty should win in most cases," Feldblum said, "There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases the sexual liberty should win because that’s the only way that the dignity of gay people can be affirmed in any realistic manner.”

A Strategy Moving Forward

Nationally and locally, the LGBT community is well organized and possesses clearly defined goals aimed at knocking down the door through use of the commerce clause to appeal to regulating small businesses which stand in the way of complete acceptance of homosexual marriage. The ACLU, the Equality Federation and other national groups all have a stake in the battle, and seem to be well represented at the local levels as well. What and how are citizens defending individual business and conscience rights doing in response?

Stemberger encourages more education on the issue and not backing down in testimony during debates. “Avoid the knee-jerk reactions from the word discrimination. As a society, we make decisions that discriminate right from wrong, and good from evil,” he says. “Research and find out what the issues are, and don’t be intimidated.”

At the local level, resident and business owner Paul Crandall suggests a more practical approach. Undeterred by the council’s decision to hold the workshop on Wednesday, a church night for many in opposition to the bill, he made these comments before the council.

“Ultimately my feelings are simple,” Crandall said, “there is not a problem in Atlantic Beach that merits additional legislation, but as Jimmy (Commissioner Hill) pointed out critically, this will go to referendum, so that each person in Atlantic Beach will be educated...we’re wasting time with these workshops because it needs to go to referendum.”