JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The first major gay rights showdown since Houston’s rancorous vote to repeal its antidiscrimination ordinance is shaping up in Jacksonville, the largest city in the nation whose leaders have never enacted civil rights protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
Like Houston, Jacksonville is a growing Southern city where religion plays a powerful role in public life. And, as in Houston, the battle here pits a well-organized coalition of gays and business forces against energized Christian conservatives who raise issues of religious freedom and the specter of male predators in women’s bathrooms. One major difference: In Houston, voters this month rolled back an existing ordinance; in Jacksonville, for now, the issue is before elected officials.
Gay rights groups have poured tens of thousands of dollars into an aggressive effort to persuade the City Council to expand its existing Human Rights Ordinance, and to elect candidates who favor doing so.
For advocates, Jacksonville is a chance to regain momentum on the path to an ultimate goal: winning sweeping legal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people by amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
For Christian conservatives, wounded from repeated losses in the courts culminating in the Supreme Court’s decision in June to make same-sex marriage legal nationwide, it is a chance to show that Houston was not an isolated victory.
Hundreds of people, many wearing bright orange stickers bearing the sunburst logo of the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality, a gay rights group, turned out this month for the first of three “community conversations” that Mayor Lenny Curry is convening on the ordinance, expected to go before the council early next year.
About 200 cities and 17 states have ordinances barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, with no evidence of any increase in crime, proponents say.
For now, Curry is playing it safe. A newly elected Republican who won by courting both business leaders and Christian conservatives, he campaigned by saying he saw no need to change city law. But he also says he wants to take the pulse of his citizenry; he has not said if whether he would sign an expanded ordinance if it passed.
If he were to sign, Christian conservatives here said, they would press to put the matter to a referendum.