1. Opinion

Editorial: Stop stalling on law banning bias

The Florida Legislature should stop stalling and give a full and fair hearing to legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling on same-sex marriage, passing a statewide antidiscrimination ordinance should be a smart next step. Yet in this election year, it appears too many Republican lawmakers just want the issue to go away because they fear angering businesses that support the protections or religious conservatives who oppose them.

The Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled last week to hear SB 120, the Florida Competitive Workforce Act. Sponsored by Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, the bill would add sexual orientation and gender identity or expression as impermissible grounds for discrimination in employment, at businesses like hotels and restaurants, and in housing throughout Florida. Instead of taking up that bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the committee spent its entire meeting discussing a bill to protect clergy from being prosecuted for refusing to perform same-sex marriages. Nothing requires churches to perform same-sex marriages, and this was a misdirection play aimed at appeasing conservative voters in an election year while running out the clock to avoid the antidiscrimination bill.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, has said he will allow the antidiscrimination proposal to be heard. The other nine committee members, particularly senators from Tampa Bay, should hold him to it. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg; Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa; and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, should show some leadership and press for the bipartisan proposal to be introduced and moved forward. A similar House bill, HB 45, counts several Tampa Bay legislators as co-sponsors, including Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg; Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater; Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey; Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa; Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena; and Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. The Legislature has killed efforts to hear similar proposals for eight years, but the courts, local governments and public opinion have moved forward.

So far, nearly 40 Florida municipalities, including Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, have passed human rights ordinances banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This is progress, but it is not enough. A state law would bring consistency to the patchwork of protections cobbled together around the state and offer protection to citizens in areas that have not yet gotten on board. Some of the loudest voices in support of this effort come from Florida Businesses for a Competitive Workforce, a group of Fortune 500 companies and small businesses throughout the state. The group, whose members include CSX, Tech Data, Darden Restaurants and AT&T, understands the economic impact of inclusiveness. Laws that protect all of a state's citizens have a positive effect on tourism and businesses' bottom lines. It is also the right thing to do.

Last week, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee ran out the clock. Next week, they may try to change the bill so much that even its supporters will no longer want it. Those are common tactics to kill bills without leaving fingerprints, but there is no reason to avoid hearing the antidiscrimination bills or to accept that it might take years' more work to pass critical statewide protections for gay, lesbian and transgender residents. The public shouldn't have to wait any longer for state lawmakers to become comfortable with protecting the civil rights of all Floridians. Stop stalling.