Court fight concludes with defeat of anti-gay charter amendment
Bob Karp
Human Rights Council of N. Central Fla.
January 1997

Two years after Alachua county voters passed an anti-gay charter amendment, a circuit court judge struck down the amendment as unconstitutional, and no appeal was filed by defendants, effectively securing the defeat of the amendment.

The final defeat of the amendment occurred as Concerned Citizens of Alachua County, the right-wing group that sponsored the initiative, let pass the Dec. 22nd deadline to appeal the ruling that struck down the anti-gay measure.

Several weeks earlier, on Dec. 10th, the Alachua County Commission, as defendant in the case, voted unanimously not to proceed with an appeal to the state appellate court. That decision left only the codefendants, Concerned Citizens of Alachua County, with the option to appeal the case.

The plaintiffs in the case, Morris v. Hill, consisted of a group of county citizens who are civil rights advocates, including members of the lesbian and gay, African American, and people with disabilities communities, as well as members of local churches and mainstream political organizations. New York-based Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund counsel Suzanne Goldberg and local attorney Larry Turner of Turner & Griscti represented the plaintiffs in the case.

Alachua County Charter Amendment 1, which was passed by voters in November 1994, prohibited the County Commission from enacting any laws to provide protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In his Nov. 22nd decision, Judge Smith ruled that the amendment violated the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution in the same manner as the Colorado amendment struck down last May by the U.S. Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans.

Essentially, Judge Smith's reasoning relied entirely on the logic of the Romer decision, which stated that a law making it more difficult for one group of citizens to seek aid from the government was in itself a denial of equal protection. Judge Smith noted that Amendment 1 had essentially restructured Alachua County government so that gay people were prevented from seeking safeguards that any other group could seek, thus placing them on an unequal footing with other citizens.

Further, the judge found that Amendment 1 was not supported by any legitimate interest of the government, noting that it could not be explained on any rational basis except as an indication of the majority's condemnation of homosexuality. The opinion quoted Romer's assertion that a desire to harm an unpopular group could never constitute a legitimate governmental interest.

In her oral argument on November 15, Mary Marshall, the attorney for the County, had attempted to distinguish the Alachua amendment from the Colorado one. The Colorado law specifically referred to gays, lesbians and bisexuals, while Amendment 1's language appeared to be neutral because it referred to "sexual orientation." Judge Smith disposed of this argument in a footnote, saying that although technically Amendment 1 did not differentiate between heterosexuals and homosexuals, the law created a disadvantage to homosexuals because the heterosexual majority does not need protection against discrimination.

The defeat of the charter amendment, however, does not affect the voter-initiated repeal of the Alachua County human rights ordinance which provided protection on the basis of sexual orientation. That ordinance, which was the commission passed in 1993, was repealed by voters in 1994 and was not challenged in court. The removal of the charter amendment, however, does untie commissioners' hands by allowing them to vote for such an ordinance in the future.

Craig Lowe, President of the Human Rights Council of North Central Florida, said the victory means that gays and lesbians in Alachua County are no longer targeted for second-class status. He added: "The fact remains that gay, lesbian and bisexual citizens, and those perceived as such, are still subject to discrimination in Alachua County, and there are no laws--state, federal, or local--to protect them. As a simple matter of fairness, Gainesville and Alachua County need to include sexual orientation protections in their anti-discrimination ordinances."

The victory hammers another nail in the coffin of anti-gay initiatives nationwide, said Lambda Legal's Suzanne Goldberg. It was wise of the county to stop wasting money and energy on this litigation.

We're relieved that Concerned Citizens did the same, avoiding a suit over whether that organization could force continuation of this case even after the County acknowledged that the amendment was illegal.

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