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Unlike other states, Florida hasn't seen national outcry over LGBT legislation

TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Rick Scott signed a law three weeks ago allowing pastors to religiously object to gay weddings, there was no national outcry. Disney didn't threaten to pull out of Orlando. The NFL didn't say it would refuse to hold the Super Bowl in Miami or Tampa.

But elsewhere across the South, that kind of high-profile reaction is exactly what's happening, as states pass sweeping changes that activists and business groups say could lead to discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

With same-sex marriage legalized nationwide, this is the new battleground for LGBT rights. In state capitols across the country, conservative lawmakers have proposed bills seeking to balance religious freedom with the Supreme Court's summer ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges that every couple has a right to get married — regardless of their sex or gender.

"Where do one person's rights begin and another one's end?" said Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, a sponsor of one such bill in Florida this year. "This opened up a sort of Pandora's Box of religious liberty issues that I suspect for many years are going to be debated in statehouses across the country."

During the past week alone, debate over several similar bills rose to the national stage:

• A North Carolina law passed last week is provoking outrage, including opposition from tech companies like Facebook and Google, for requiring transgender people use the restroom for the sex indicated on their birth certificate and overruling local ordinances banning LGBT discrimination.

• Wednesday night, the Mississippi Senate followed the House's lead in passing what may be the most sweeping proposal yet: allowing county clerks to refuse same-sex marriage licenses, businesses to fire LGBT workers and adoption agencies to refuse gay couples.

• In Georgia, lawmakers passed a bill that would have allowed religious groups to fire people they don't feel are in line with their faith and refuse to rent space to anyone deemed "objectionable." But Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed it this week after Disney threatened to stop filming movies there and the NFL said it may not consider Atlanta for a future Super Bowl.

And in Florida?

"We haven't seen that (reaction) here," said Carlos Guillermo Smith, lobbyist for LGBT rights group Equality Florida. "We have effectively been able to either kill legislation that's been going in that direction or neutralize it like we most recently did with Florida's pastor protection bill."

The Pastor Protection Act allows churches and clergy to refuse to take part in same-sex weddings. It was never expanded beyond that point, unlike Georgia's law, which would have allowed religious objections beyond marriages.

Instead, a "grand compromise" reached by gay rights activists and conservative lawmakers limited Florida's law, making it narrow enough that Equality Florida dropped its opposition (though it still did not support the bill).

"People have accused this bill of being a sword, but it's not a sword," sponsor Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said frequently when the Legislature was considering the Pastor Protection Act. "It is a shield of protection."

Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, said the national advocacy group decides which proposed state laws to fight based on how likely they are to pass, as well as "the degree of harm that any particular piece of legislation will result in for LGBT people."

This year, the Sunshine State hasn't been in the organization's sights, though they have tracked about 200 bills in 34 states, Warbelow said.

But Florida lawmakers have a history of considering more incendiary proposals, including some of those causing problems in nearby states.

Last year, the Florida Legislature debated whether transgender people should be restricted to use the restrooms of the sex indicated on their driver's licenses and whether adoption agencies should be allowed to refuse same-sex couples as parents.

Neither proposal made it to Gov. Rick Scott's desk to be signed or vetoed. However, lawmakers raised similar issues this year in debate over a bill banning LGBT discrimination in employment and public accommodations.

Plakon said he hopes for more legislation allowing people to better follow their religious convictions. He doesn't have any bills in the works, he said, but he thinks, "there should be accommodations in the law."

These are battles gay and transgender rights activists will likely have to continue fighting, Guillermo Smith said.

That could come with a host of other problems.

"The message to lawmakers in every corner of the country should be loud and clear," Warbelow said. "Politicians who experiment with bills that try to write discrimination into state law are gambling with the state's reputation and economy."

Companies like AT&T, Mariott and Wells Fargo have already staked out their position in support of anti-discrimination measures in Florida, but the issue isn't a high priority for business groups in Tallahassee.

What if major national companies give Florida the same treatment as Georgia and North Carolina?

"If it comes down to protecting the First Amendment or protecting big business," Plakon said, "I'll go with the First Amendment."

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

Unlike other states, Florida hasn't seen national outcry over LGBT legislation 03/31/16 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2016 9:26pm]
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