The Florida Legislature’s 2015 session has come to a tumultuous close with the House of Representatives abruptly ending its session three days early due to a budget fight with the Senate over Medicaid expansion. That story is, of course, grabbing headlines. Little attention, however, is being paid to the Legislature hearing multiple bills that would restrict civil rights and its refusal to take up legislation that would expand rights. These actions beg serious contemplation about the state of our state vis-à-vis equality.
Once again this year, there was no movement on the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, which would have provided statewide civil rights protections for Florida’s LGBT community in the workplace, housing and the marketplace.
Adding insult to injury, the House, in particular, did not hesitate to spend numerous hours and resources hearing a range of regressive bills. The list of the most offending bills included:
“An act relating to conscience protection for private child-placing agencies” (HB 7111): This bill sought to legalize discrimination in the guise of “religious freedom.” It would do so by allowing all child-placing agencies, even those receiving taxpayer dollars, to deny adoption or foster care services to anyone based on an agency’s “religious or moral convictions.” So, practically speaking, an agency could refuse to serve an otherwise qualified couple because they are same-sex, Jewish, Muslim, or inter-faith. The legislation passed in the House, but fortunately failed in a Senate committee.
“An act relating to single-sex public facilities” (HB 583): This mean-spirited bill sought to criminalize any transgender person — without their gender identity on a driver’s license or passport — for using a public single-sex bathroom or other public facility. Keep in mind that many transgender people never fully transition and there are plenty of transgender teens under the driving age. Also keep in mind that Florida’s transgender community is exceedingly vulnerable — often the target of assault or rape in public facilities. Its actual intent as revealed at a House hearing was to repeal gender-identity protections from local civil rights ordinances. After two House committees devoted considerable time hearing the measure, the bill failed.
“An act relating to informed patient consent” (HB 633): This paternalistic legislation intervenes in the right of women to make their very personal and private health care decisions about terminating pregnancy. Except under a very narrow medical exception or if a woman produces a police report or other documentation of rape, this bill requires a 24-hour waiting period after a woman receives state-mandated counseling about abortion before she can legally have one. It penalizes the vast majority of women who don’t report their rapes. And for many women, juggling work, child care or other responsibilities to schedule two separate doctor’s appointments will push abortions later into pregnancy and make the procedure less safe. Regrettably, this bill swiftly moved through both chambers and the governor likely will sign it into law.
Although the majority of these bills failed, they raise troubling questions for Florida. Why were they filed in the first place? And why do our elected officials continue to use the legislative process to discriminate against our friends and neighbors?
This is how we want Florida not to be. We can do better. Let’s value diversity and treat people with dignity. Let’s write bills reflecting these values. In 2016, let’s wisely use our short legislative session by focusing on measures that unify Floridians and move the state forward for all.