Almost 600,000 LGBTQ Floridians Will Lose Civil Rights Protections if This Bill Becomes Law

Advocates say House Bill 3's passage into law could have "devastating" consequences.

If a new bill in Florida becomes law, 598,000 LGBTQ people could lose employment and housing protections overnight.

This Thursday, March 14, the Florida House State Affairs Committee will debate House Bill 3, which would preempt local laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. After it was filed by State Rep. Michael Grant (R-Port Charlotte), HB 3 moved quickly through the House. It was approved 9 to 5 by the Business and Professions Subcommittee on February 21 in a vote that fell along party lines.

Should the State Affairs Committee give its thumbs up, HB 3 will have just one committee—the House Commerce Committee—left to clear before it receives a full vote on the floor of the Florida House.

LGBTQ groups say they’re worried about the bill’s chances.

Equality Florida Senior Policy Director Joe Saunders notes that HB 3’s low number shows House Speaker José R. Oliva (R-Miami Lakes) views the legislation as a “clear priority” in the 2019 session. He claims its passage would be “devastating” for the estimated 4.9% of Floridians who identify as LGBTQ.

“In Florida over the last 20 years, we've passed local nondiscrimination laws and local protections for the LGBTQ community in over 60% of the state,” Saunders tells NewNowNext. “Laws that say it's illegal to fire someone because they’re gay or transgender and laws that protect us in housing, public spaces, and public accommodations are all at risk.”

While Florida is one of the 30 states in the U.S. without inclusive statewide protections for LGBTQ people, it leads the nation in nondiscrimination laws passed at the local level. Twenty counties and 11 cities in Florida offer civil rights protections on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity.

But Saunders claims HB 3 wouldn’t just affect local nondiscrimination ordinances. If passed, it would also override conversion therapy bans outlawing “gay cure” therapies from being practiced on LGBTQ youth.

“Conversion therapy ban are on the books in 20 communities in the state—two counties and 18 cities,” he says. “HB 3 rolls back 20 years of progress made at the local level. I don’t believe it’s the intent of the legislature to have this devastating effect on LGBTQ rights, but intent doesn't really matter if in effect we see one of the worst rollbacks of LGBTQ protections ever.”

The passage of HB 3 would put Florida on par with none other than North Carolina on LGBTQ rights.

In March 2017, the embattled state passed legislation voiding local nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community in the wake of fallout from House Bill 2, its controversial anti-trans bathroom bill. HB 2 was repealed and replaced with House Bill 142, which banned cities and counties from passing laws “regulating private employment practices or regulating public accommodations" until December 2020.

Although North Carolina lawmakers viewed HB 142 as a “compromise” on trans bathroom access, advocacy groups claimed it was anything but. More than 415,000 LGBTQ people will have no protections from discrimination for at least 20 more months.

Texas attempted to follow North Carolina’s playbook after its anti-trans bathroom bill, Senate Bill 6, stalled in 2017. Proponents of House Bill 2899 claimed the legislation struck “the right kind of balance” on the issue of “privacy,” while preventing “a chilling effect on business.” It would have voided LGBTQ protections in 10 cities and counties, including Austin and Dallas.

Another version of that bill was put forward in Texas this year. Meanwhile, states like Tennessee and Arkansas already have their own laws on the books preempting LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances.

Although preemption law supporters claim they wouldn’t result in the billion-dollar backlash of North Carolina’s HB 2, critics of the Florida bill say otherwise.

The National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) claims Grant’s legislation would have a “dangerous fiscal impact on the state’s $1 trillion economy,” which is largely generated through tourism. In a press release opposing HB 3, Co-Founder & CEO Chance Mitchell says the bill “must be stopped.”

But what’s curious about HB 3 is that it never mentions LGBTQ people. Its sponsor believes the legislation is necessary to prevent cities from passing local laws against suntan lotion.

“That is a concern across the state,” Grant told the News Service of Florida. “You cannot sell a particular best-named brand of sunscreen lotion in Key West because of a concern they have for an environmental issue, whether that’s real or not. Somebody told me today you’d need a half-a-billion people to jump in the ocean, all slathered in sunscreen lotion, to have an impact on the reef.”

Should HB 3 reach Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk, the first-term Republican could be in a position to sign it. Shortly after taking office, he approved a discrimination executive order snubbing LGBTQ protections.

The predicament that Florida currently finds itself in highlights the need for national action on LGBTQ civil rights, according to Movement Advancement Project Researcher Logan Casey. This Wednesday, Democrats in the U.S. House reintroduced the Equality Act, which would ban anti-LGBTQ bias in areas like education, employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, federal funding, and the jury system.

More than 280 federal lawmakers have signed onto the legislation, which also received the support of over 165 businesses. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called its passage a “top priority” for the 2019 legislative session.

Casey says signing the Equality Act into law would effectively take the issue out of DeSantis’ hands.

“Having the Equality Act passed at the federal level would not only mean that LGBTQ people are protected from state to state, even within a state like in Florida, the protections that you have wouldn't depend on your zip code,” he tells NewNowNext. “The Equality Act is incredibly important in resolving issues like this.”

Florida lawmakers introduced their own nondiscrimination bill this year, the Florida Competitive Workforce Act (CWA). If passed, it would update the 1992 Florida Civil Rights Act to include gender identity and sexual orientation as protected characteristics.

Like the Equality Act under Trump, however, that bill is unlikely to become law with a Republican in the governor’s chair.