Florida is at a historic crossroads, and the nation will be watching whether lawmakers turn toward progress or lurch backward on Monday, when state senators take up the Florida Competitive Workforce Act—a bill that would add lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) nondiscrimination protections to existing civil-rights law.
Passage of such basic protections might seem an obvious step for the third-largest state in the country. Fifty-six percent of Floridians are already covered by a rapidly expanding network of local protections, and nearly 70% of Floridians across party lines support statewide legislation. The gay-marriage ban fell in Florida more than a year ago, before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriages, and the state is trending steadily in the direction of fairness on LGBT matters.
Yet some Republican legislators would rather avoid going on record when it comes to the the Competitive Workforce Act. Last week the same Senate Judiciary Committee avoided the bill and instead advanced the so-called “Pastor Protection” bill, which would stop clergy from being forced to violate their beliefs by marrying gay couples. In light of this religious-exemption bill, Monday’s hearing for the Competitive Workplace Act represents a clear breakthrough and a moment of accountability for LGBT rights.
Passage of the Competitive Workforce Act has become a priority for the business community in Florida. Dozens of the state’s top employers, including nine Fortune 500 companies, formed a coalition dedicated to passing the bill. More than 400 small businesses across the state have joined the effort as well, and the bill has seen incredible momentum these last few weeks. The state Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, representing 80,000 small businesses across the state, recently joined the large coalition of business voices calling for the bill’s passage, standing alongside companies including Disney, AT&T, CSX, Wells Fargo, Office Depot, Marriott and Darden Restaurants.
Two key Republican senators have also joined the growing ranks of bipartisan co-sponsors: Senator Jack Latvala, one of the most powerful Republicans in the state and Senator Travis Hutson, a young Republican who represents the younger GOP’s rejection of the anti-gay culture wars.
In addition, Equality Florida, of which I’m the CEO, and our national coalition partners, including Gill Foundation and American Unity Fund, have rallied to keep Florida off the disastrous path of states like Arizona and Indiana, where anti-gay legislation provoked national backlash, harming the reputations of those states and costing them jobs and investment.
We know there are similar economic impacts at play in Florida, as well. Equality Means Business, a coalition of businesses launched in 2007 to improve our national and international reputation as a welcoming and inclusive place to live, work and visit, released a report last year that estimated that the lack of statewide LGBT protections cost businesses more than $362 million a year.
In Florida, we have a chance to take a different path. We’ve spent years laying a groundwork for a state bill at the local level, and now it is time for Florida to move beyond a patchwork quilt of protections and promote legislation that encourages economic growth.
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