GAINESVILLE – The Alachua County Commission has expanded protections for sexual orientation in the county.

Last week, the commission approved an amendment to its human rights ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The amendment applies to the whole county, but cities have the option of opting out or writing their own ordinance. Cities can also opt out of specific portions of the ordinance, rather than accepting or rejecting it in its entirety.

“We’ve gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback,” said Jacqueline Chung, manager of the county’s Equal Opportunity Office. “In my opinion, it’s long overdue.”

The amendment will go into effect Jan. 1, 2014, making sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes. It is meant to protect against workplace harassment and allows transgender peoples to use the restroom or locker facility of the gender they identify with.

Previously, companies with fewer than 15 employees were exempt from the ordinance. The amendment changed the threshold to five. Religious groups and private membership organizations are also exempt.

The amendment passed with a 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Susan Baird, opposing the amendment, not voting.

“I have three problems with it,” Baird said. First, Baird suggested allowing the cities to opt in to the ordinance rather than opt out. Second, she opposed changing the employee threshold from 15 to five, which she said creates a huge burden on small companies. Third, she wanted to only allow transgendered individuals who have completed surgery to be able to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. Baird said she did not oppose the general goal of the amendment.

No city official in the county has indicated any plan to opt out of the ordinance, though there are some who have expressed issues with it.

Newberry Mayor Bill Conrad said the amendment is controversial, although Chung said the county has received no bad feedback other than some posts on the Alachua County Facebook page.

“It’s kind of a morality issue,” Conrad said. “I’m a Christian. I believe that you’re born with the gender God gave you. A surgeon can’t change it.”

Conrad said he plans to talk to the community in Newberry to gauge public opinion, but he expects the reaction will be negative.  

“I don’t think there’s any need for any change. It’s a box I’d like to not open,” he said. “We’re happy with the status quo.”

Despite Conrad’s opposition, Newberry’s city manager, Keith Ashby, said the city has had no discussion of opting out.

Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper said he has no problem with adding protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, so long as each individual city is able to make its own decision on the matter.

High Springs Mayor Sue Weller said she supported the idea of the amendment, though she hasn’t read enough to comment further.

Support for the ordinance has been widespread, Chung said. Several have sent emails to the commissioners, and the public reaction at the meeting where the amendment was approved was one of jubilance and cheers.

“I’m very proud of the commission for moving forward to approve the amendment,” she said. “In Alachua County, it doesn’t matter whether you’re heterosexual or LGBT, you now have rights to protection against harassment.”

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