Tonight the Pinellas County Commission will hear public testimony about whether to ban discrimination on the basis of "sexual orientation" in employment, housing and public accommodations. There is ample evidence in our society that people are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, so unless commissioners are prepared to publicly condone such behavior in Pinellas, their vote tonight must be in favor of the ban.
This is not groundbreaking legislation. At least six Florida counties — Broward, Leon, Orange, Monroe, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade — and a number of Tampa Bay area cities, including St. Petersburg and Tampa, have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is defined in Pinellas' proposal as "an individual's actual or perceived heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality."
People often read right over the protection offered to heterosexuals and focus on the proposed protection for homosexuals. That is what brings out the likes of David Caton and his Florida Family Association — in fact, Caton has promised vigorous opposition to the Pinellas amendment at tonight's meeting. Caton and those of like mind probably will argue that protecting homosexuals is inappropriate and represents a threat to the county's values. Nonsense. County commissioners should flip the argument around and ask themselves: When is it appropriate to discriminate?
The county already has a human rights ordinance that bans discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, family status and disabilities in the provision of housing, employment and public accommodations. Sexual orientation needs to be added to the list precisely because harassing and discriminating behavior against our fellow human beings, for any reason, is wrong. It is a sad fact that people sometimes are denied jobs, housing, and service in hotels and restaurants because they are, or are judged to be, homosexuals. Such treatment is offensive and ought to be against the law. Since the state and federal governments have thus far failed to pass such protections, it is important that counties and cities do so.
The proposed ordinance would not ban discrimination based on "gender identification or expression," which would have protected transgender individuals. Pinellas County posts on its Web site a "Statement of Commitment," signed by the county administrator and all constitutional officers, that includes this paragraph: "We … are firmly committed, legally and morally, to securing equal employment opportunity and freedom from discrimination for all individuals within Pinellas County." The paragraph says all individuals, not just those it is comfortable for politicians to protect at the moment.
However, banning discrimination based on sexual orientation is a big step forward for Pinellas. It would help ensure the rights of a frequently victimized group. It is the right thing to do.