TAMPA — In many ways, it was a replay of a scene that had happened before. Religious people, some of them holding Bibles, some quoting from them, warning Hillsborough County commissioners what would happen if they outlaw discrimination against gay and transgender people.
The dissolving of religious liberty in America. Founding Fathers rolling in their graves. The wrath of a vengeful God.
This year, though, the scene ended differently: These people were outnumbered, and they left disappointed.
Hillsborough County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to move forward with a local law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The vote is another in a series of events in the last year marking a shift for this formerly staunchly conservative commission.
Wednesday's vote did not make it illegal to discriminate against gay and transgender people in Hillsborough in hiring, housing or public accommodations. Commissioners asked the county attorney to write a draft ordinance that would, and two commissioners remained silent on the issue, which will probably not come back for a vote until fall.
But if Republican Commissioners Ken Hagan or Al Higginbotham intend to vote no, they will have to do so in the face of an array of supporters marshaled by Commissioner Kevin Beckner, Hillsborough's first openly gay commissioner, who proposed Wednesday's discussion.
Gary Sasso, president of Carlton Fields Jorden Burt law firm in Tampa, spoke in favor of the law, and brought letters signed by leaders of dozens of local businesses echoing support.
Among them: Tampa General Hospital, Wells Fargo, Regions Bank, Bank of America, the University of South Florida, the Buccaneers, the Rays, the Lightning, the members of the Westshore Alliance, the Tampa Downtown Partnership and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
Beckner, one of two Democrats on the board, opened the discussion theatrically. He described childhood memories of flag-waving, fireworks and apple pie on the Fourth of July, then quoted from the Declaration of Independence.
"That freedom is not free and, for some, not equal," Beckner said. "In 2014, no hard-working American trying to earn a living … should have to live in fear of being fired … for reasons that have nothing to do with their job performance."
Discrimination against gays used to be illegal in Hillsborough, but transgender people — who live as a different gender than the one assigned at birth — have never had such protections.
In 1991, commissioners adopted a human rights ordinance that included sexual orientation, but in 1995 commissioners reversed course and repealed the part barring discrimination against gays.
In the years since, dozens of cities, counties and states have adopted similar laws preventing discrimination against LGBT residents, including Tampa and Pinellas County. Hillsborough, meanwhile, developed a reputation that Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith termed "screechingly homophobic" for the 1995 repeal and 2005 commission vote to ban county recognition of gay pride events.
Two commissioners remain from the 2005 vote. Chairman Mark Sharpe reversed his vote last year when Beckner successfully pushed to repeal the gay pride ban. Wednesday, Sharpe said he supported expanding the county's human rights ordinance.
Hagan, who was out of the room during the gay pride vote, did not take a side Wednesday, nor did Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who is running for a new term this year. Commissioners Victor Crist, Les Miller and Sandy Murman all expressed support.
More than 20 people spoke during public comment about the proposed law, about one-third opposed.
"God does not change," said Travis Smith, pastor of Hillsdale Baptist Church in Tampa. "Leviticus 18:22 still says homosexuality is an abomination."
"If you pass this measure, it will discriminate against Christians and other people of faith," said Terry Kemple, a socially conservative activist and candidate for the Hillsborough School Board.
The discussion, though passionate, was respectful. No one shouted and, unlike in years past, guns and knives were not confiscated from the crowd.
Beckner said after the meeting he hoped the ordinance would be ready for a vote by September. Although its passage is not guaranteed, five of seven commissioners have now expressed support.
In a sign even county staff views it a forgone conclusion, Hillsborough's communications department sent out a news release Wednesday, touting the economic development benefits of the new human rights ordinance.
Congresswoman Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, a former Hillsborough commissioner, also released a statement congratulating Beckner. Castor was the lone vote against the gay pride ban in 2005, and the same year unsuccessfully tried to expand the human rights ordinance to prohibit discrimination against gay people.
"This discriminatory policy was a dark cloud over our community," Castor wrote, "but we turned the page."
Contact Will Hobson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.