Principles vs. Politics

"If their fear is biblical or religious, let's talk about how this is a civil issue, not a religious issue," he adds. "Let's talk about how you can maintain your religious beliefs and still support something that supports the dignity of human life."

As a result, Mursuli and SAVE have garnered endorsements for the ordinance from dozens of organizations, including the NAACP, the United Teachers of Dade, the American Jewish Congress, the Dade Bar Association, the AFL-CIO, and the Miami-Dade Community Relations Board. The cities of Miami Beach, Aventura, Pinecrest, Bay Harbor Islands, Key Biscayne, North Bay Village, North Miami, and South Miami also support the ordinance.

A growing number of influential elected officials, including Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas (who went AWOL during last year's debate), are now standing up for it. "We cannot profess to be a progressive, multicultural community with international appeal while refusing to respect our own residents' democratic rights to be heard and participate in public discussion on a matter of public policy," Penelas wrote in a memo to the commission. "Adoption of the proposed policy, rather than offering special rights, will simply extend protection against discrimination to a currently unprotected group."

Perhaps the most significant result of SAVE's hard work was a statement issued a few weeks ago by the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami. The church said it would not oppose the ordinance and noted that the measure did not promote homosexuality but rather protected people from discrimination. The Archdiocese's statement included remarks from Archbishop John C. Favalora, who declared that "opposition to homosexual activity and homosexual lifestyles can never be construed as acceptance of bigotry, hatred, or discrimination against people with a homosexual orientation."

SAVE has also lobbied individual county commissioners. In some cases, Mursuli has put them in touch with gays and lesbians in their districts who have been victims of discrimination and who would have been helped by the ordinance.

In addition to such anecdotal evidence, Mursuli has pulled together statistical information -- both on a national and a local level -- to document the need for the ordinance. According to figures provided by the Metro-Dade Equal Opportunity Board (EOB), from 1993 to 1995 slightly more than 2 percent of housing-discrimination complaints involved sexual orientation, compared with 2.6 percent based on religion, 3.5 percent based on gender, 11 percent based on national origin, and 46 percent based on race. (Within the City of Hialeah, the number of complaints based on sexual orientation jumps to 9.4 percent, according to the EOB.)

But Mursuli warns that these statistics can be misleading. Because the EOB can't take action against discrimination based on sexual orientation, some complaints aren't even registered and as a result don't show up in their statistical analysis. If this ordinance is passed, however, the EOB would have the authority to investigate such allegations of discrimination, just as it is empowered to scrutinize cases involving race, religion, national origin, and gender.

At SAVE's request the local office of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently agreed to track calls received over a 90-day period in which people complained of job discrimination arising from their sexual orientation. Once again, as this is not an issue EEOC can address, it normally disregards such calls. During the test period, however, twenty complaints were received from people alleging discrimination based on their sexual orientation. If the ordinance is passed, EEOC staff in the future could refer such calls to the county for assistance.

Despite SAVE's efforts the ordinance is likely to be defeated. Only six commissioners have pledged to vote in favor of the legislation on Tuesday: Sorenson, Gwen Margolis, Bruno Barreiro, Betty Ferguson, Barbara Carey, and Jimmy Morales.

It needs just one more vote to pass.
The remaining seven commissioners, however, have already announced their intention to vote against it. None of them would actually admit to being a bigot, and all are likely to make speeches emphatically proclaiming their opposition to discrimination. But in the end, their words will mean nothing.

"If you are opposed to discrimination, why would you be opposed to saying so in the law?" Mursuli wonders. "I'm convinced that a majority of people in this county support this ordinance and believe that discrimination is something that should not exist and that we should protect people from being discriminated against. We are not talking about an endorsement of anyone's life or who they sleep with. We are talking about a fairness issue, a discrimination issue."

Opponents of the measure certainly know that gays and lesbians suffer discrimination; they just don't want to acknowledge it. Which is why, after listening to the schoolteacher tell me about her experiences, I realized there was no need to document one emotionally devastating story after another. That would merely divert attention from the real problem threatening this ordinance: the bigotry, political opportunism, and cowardice of certain elected officials.

Here are the opponents:
Javier Souto and Pedro Reboredo: In a way it's difficult to fault Souto and Reboredo. At least they harbor no hidden agendas. Simply put, they are homophobes. They are too narrow-minded and their fears too deeply ingrained to allow for any change in their thinking. Gay people are evil, and this ordinance would do nothing less than grant them special rights, or as the sagacious Souto declared earlier this month, "special powers." These two are lost causes.

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