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How an Orlando strip club sparked a fight for civil rights in Florida

On Thursday, Miami Beach led a coalition of 21 municipalities, including Tampa, Pinellas County and Dunedin, in filing a brief urging the overturn of a May decision voiding local protections of civil rights.

What do the policies of an Orlando strip club have to do with anti-discrimination protections in Pinellas County, Tampa and Dunedin?

A whole lot, it turns out.

Attorneys for those three governments joined a statewide effort to protect local anti-discrimination ordinances after an Orange County Circuit Court judge ruled in May that Florida’s anti-discrimination laws overrule local ordinances.

The constitutional chain reaction was sparked by a lawsuit filed by two women denied entry to an Orlando strip club in 2018 because the strip club’s policy prohibited women from entering the business unless they were accompanied by a man.

When the women sued, their lawyer cited Orange County’s Human Rights Ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of traditional factors, like race and religion, but goes beyond the Florida Civil Rights Act by protecting LGBTQ residents as well.

Now that local ordinance and 45 others across the state are at risk of being voided, as the plaintiffs appeal to the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Florida.

“The worst case scenario is that local discrimination ordinances that protect LGBTQ people around the state of Florida would cease to exist,” said Robert Rosenwald, the Miami Beach’s first assistant city attorney. “Gay and trans folks would have absolutely no protections from discrimination in the state of Florida.”

Miami Beach led a coalition of 21 municipalities in filing an amicus curiae — friend of the court — brief on Thursday encouraging the appellate court to overturn the trial court’s decision.

“If allowed to stand, the trial court’s decision will harm the most vulnerable people across our state by preventing local governments from barring discrimination against people not yet protected by state or federal law,” said Mayor Dan Gelber. “Together with 21 other local governments, we are taking a stand in court today to ensure that the additional protections offered by local discrimination laws will continue to make our cities and counties the fairest and most equitable places to live, work and play.”

In 2009, Dunedin, a city known for progressive and inclusive policies, expanded its 1973 civil rights ordinance to include gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes.

The City Commission voted unanimously last month to join the amicus brief to preserve that safeguard, City Manager Jennifer Bramley said. But the trial court’s ruling also raised an issue cities like Dunedin have been battling for years: home rule and their ability to govern freely at the local level.

"This is a human rights issue but it's also a home rule issue, " Bramley said. "There are home rule issues that preempt local ordinances that are problematic. This one is disheartening. We know our population, our visitors, best and the local government should be allowed to enforce its own ordinances, especially as it pertains to human rights."

Pinellas County adopted bans on discrimination against sexual orientation in 2008 and gender identity and expression in 2013 that would no longer apply under this ruling, said county attorney Jewel White. And the county's code that bans workplace discrimination applies to employers with five or more employees while the state defines employers with at least 15 employees, setting up another protection that could be trumped.

“If the trial court judge’s decision is upheld, it could set a legal precedent that threatens municipal and county human rights to enact laws and already-in-place laws across the state,” White said in an email."

Monroe and Broward counties joined Miami Beach and others in the filing. Rosenwald filed the court papers after an attorney in the original case called him to warn about the potential stripping of local discrimination protections.

“The city of Miami Beach took it upon itself to call every local government in the state that has a Human Rights Ordinance, all 46 of them, and asked them to join our coalition and sign our brief,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous situation because the judiciary in Florida has changed a lot recently, and they’ve shown a strong willingness to ignore prior precedent and just reverse it.”

Rosenwald said Florida Supreme Court precedent is on the city’s side. Many of the cities and counties with Human Rights Ordinances have enjoyed its protections since the 1980s. In Miami Beach, he said, the local ordinance was passed in the early 1990s.

“If they follow the law, the decision on appeal should be short and it should reverse the trial court,” he said. “But with the current judiciary, anything can happen.”

The case is not expected to be decided until next year.