Pensacola poised to pass non-discrimination ordinance

The sprawling hours of discussion during Pensacola’s workshop on a proposed human rights ordinance provided ample time for everyone to have their say. Late into the night, people talked about love and hate, about discrimination and acceptance, about hopes, fears and concerns. They talked about senior citizen discounts, ladies-night drink specials and God.

But one issue in particular seemed to bubble to the surface during the Nov. 9 workshop: where best for transgender individuals to use the bathroom.

“The question I get the most with the transgender community, the question that I get is the bathroom question,” attorney Russell VanSickle had explained early on in the evening.

The Beggs and Lane attorney was brought in to lay out the proposed ordinance for the Pensacola City Council, to explain how it compared to state and federal protections against discrimination. In short, he told them, the proposed local ordinance went beyond its would-be state and federal counterparts.

Brought to the city by the local American Civil Liberties Union, the proposed human rights ordinance seeks to protect individuals from discrimination when it comes to employment, housing and public accommodations. It defines protected classes — including standards such as race, religion and sex, but also adding sexual orientation and identification — and outlines legal remedies.

VanSickle said that the local ordinance was broader than state and federal protections because of the specification of sexual orientation and identification, (cases of which, he said, normally fall under ‘sex’), and also because it expanded the types of employers and businesses which would be held accountable.

The attorney explained that employers operating just four calendar weeks annually would be impacted (compared to 15 and 20 weeks at the state and federal levels) and raised a point that members of the public would later hone in on: “It’s going to expand the definition of public accommodation to just about anything open to the public.”

“It would outlaw senior citizen discounts,” VanSickle said, listing off rental-car age restrictions and over-18 strip clubs as other possible casualties. “And it may prohibit ladies’ night discounts if that matters to anyone in the room.”

Sara Latshaw, North Florida Director for the ACLU, assured everyone that senior discounts were safe — “we are not intending to take away senior discounts” — and explained that such human rights ordinances were a national trend.

“We are certainly not inventing the wheel here,” she said.

Latshaw said that the proposed ordinance is based on similar ordinances around the state, specifically Volusia County, and urged the council to be among the first in northwest Florida to pass a local ordinance.

“We know Pensacola vales diversity,” she said, “so it makes sense for us to lead the way in the Panhandle.”

Public sentiment at the workshop was split. While some expressed support for the proposed ordinance — offering up personal stories to back up their beliefs — others voiced concerns about possible abuse of the ordinance, particularly by individuals claiming to be transgender to gain access to public restroom facilities (such an argument preceded the recent defeat of a similar ordinance in Texas).

“As far as the fear of predators in public bathrooms, that is totally a myth,” said Devin Cole, president of the University of West Florida’s Gay Straight Alliance.

Cole explained that UWF dorms now feature unisex bathrooms, sans incidents. Daniel McBurney, UWF’s student body president, said that the school had also recently passed a resolution in support of the proposed city ordinance.

But other workshop attendees argued that the proposed ordinance would infringe on religious freedoms, overlooked administrative remedies in favor of legal action, or was redundant with state and federal laws. State Rep. Mike Hill also spoke at the workshop, contending that the city council shouldn’t take it upon itself to pass such an ordinance.

“This is an ordinance looking for a problem,” Hill said. “If you want to pass this, put it on the ballot.”

For their part, council members appeared ready to discuss the issue further.

“Discrimination is a bad word,” said Vice Chair Larry B. Johnson. “I don’t believe discrimination has a place in Pensacola.”

“I don’t think there’s any way to sit here and hear what people have to say and not be moved and not be transformed,” said Councilman P.C. Wu.

Council President Andy Terhaar said he felt the proposed ordinance added some needed protections.

“I think the state and federal statutes cover most of it, but they don’t cover all of it,” the council president said.

But there were concerns as well. Councilman Charles Bare noted that he needed to review the materials provided by VanSickle. And Councilwoman Sherri Myers said the 41-page ordinance was too long a read — “no ordinance should be that long.”

But it looks like council is poised to add Pensacola’s name to the list of locales to adopt such anti-discrimination ordinances. Spencer noted that “time is of the essence” and Terhaar assured Latshaw they’d be talking further soon.

“I haven’t been ducking you,” Terhaar told the ACLU director. “I look forward to sitting down with you.”