TALLAHASSEE — Victories in the past year for the LGBT rights movement in Florida have ensured marriage for same-sex couples and fended off an attempt to let adoption agencies refuse service to gay parents.
But as meetings begin for the 2016 legislative session that starts in January, lawmakers are at a crossroads with two key bills that form the next phase in the debate over sexual orientation and gender identity. One would expand workplace discrimination protections, making it illegal to fire someone because they are gay or transgender. Another reinforces churches and pastors' right not to perform weddings that run afoul of their religious practices.
"With the trajectory of how quickly this is all moving, there's so much uncertainty in this area of law," said Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood.
That's why Plakon and other Republican lawmakers are pushing for the "Pastor Protection Act" (HB 43, SB 110). Religious leaders should be protected by the state and federal constitutions, but they just want to add another layer of protection, Plakon said.
In Texas, a similar bill passed with a near-unanimous vote, and gay rights groups supported it. Florida lawmakers are hoping for the same, and they've been bolstered by outside groups, including Clermont pastor Chris Walker, whose petition on Change.org has more than 23,000 backers.
But Florida LGBT activists worry about lawmakers tacking on provisions to allow other businesses and possibly even county clerks to refuse service to gay couples.
"While today we're talking about pastors and houses of worship, tomorrow we'll be talking about businesses that serve the public," said Carlos Guillermo Smith, a lobbyist for Equality Florida. "Then we're talking about public officials. This can become the Kim Davis Empowerment Act."
Plakon said other lawmakers are considering religious protections for business owners or county clerks, but he doesn't expect them to be added onto his bill.
Equality Florida is putting its weight behind the proposed update to the state's employment nondiscrimination laws, dubbed the "Florida Competitive Workforce Act" (HB 45, SB 120). It would make Florida the 18th state to ban discrimination in employment, housing and education because of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, says the bill, which she has pushed the past three years, could finally pass this session. Republican leadership is ensuring that the bill will avoid the House Civil Justice Subcommittee, which has blocked it in the past.
"I'm hoping to ride this wave," Raschein said. "My own leadership on the Republican side has been very open to me. Nobody is necessarily blocking it."
To groups like the Florida Family Policy Council, which opposes same-sex marriage, these kinds of bills pose a problem. They worry about lawsuits against religious business owners who don't want to hire gay employees.
"These types of statutes are the greatest threat to liberty right now in America," council president John Stemberger said. "While these statutes claim to prevent discrimination, they seek to discriminate against and punish Christians who simply wish to practice their faith in the public square."
Other proposals could soon be in the mix, as well. Stemberger is calling for legislation allowing adoption and foster care agencies to refuse to work with gay couples, which failed in the 2015 session. Two Democrats are again pushing a bill to ban therapy programs that attempt to change children's sexual orientation.
The indication now, however, is that the nondiscrimination and pastor protection bills are most likely to get heard in committee, the critical first step to passing legislation.
The bills have a narrow focus, but on an issue as controversial as LGBT rights, the Florida Legislature has a tendency for drama. Last year, a bill promoting adoption was almost derailed when lawmakers used it to eliminate a decades-old ban on gay couples adopting children, which was ruled unconstitutional by a judge five years ago.
So, it isn't unusual that supporters and opponents in the broader fight over sexual orientation are positioning themselves for what's to come.
Raschein says religious protection and rights for gay and transgender Floridians can coexist.
"I certainly want the religious statutes that exist, the protections that exist in our constitution today. I absolutely want those to remain and even be strengthened," she said. "This is, I think, on a different path."
Contact Michael Auslen at [email protected] Follow @MichaelAuslen.