Jorge Mursuli has carved out a career in Miami as a tireless defender of personal freedoms and free speech. He is the former director of SAVE Dade, a gay-rights group; a board member of the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board; and the current director of the civil rights group People for the American Way. And he's fresh off a September 10 victory beating back a coalition of Christian groups out to repeal a county ordinance extending discrimination protections to gays and lesbians.
So it's not a little ironic that Mursuli now stands accused of attempting to pressure political and government officials into silencing a county employee who was in favor of repealing the anti-discrimination ordinance. In other words, Mursuli is accused of trying to squelch someone else's free speech because they didn't agree with him.
Mursuli flat-out denies it. "You believe that? It's absolutely not true," he exclaims. "I'm one of the biggest defenders of free speech in this town!"
But the accusation isn't coming from the long list of political opponents out to discredit him. It's coming from those he worked closely with to save the ordinance, namely Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, president of the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, a group that worked side by side with Mursuli during the ordinance fight; and Max Rameau, a non-gay black activist who helped strategize how to reach voters in black Miami. Rodriguez-Taseff and Rameau both say Mursuli attempted to silence the Rev. Willie Sims, director of special projects and crisis response at the county's Community Relations Board (CRB), and who is also the president of the African American Council of Christian Clergy (AACCC). Citing opposition to the "homosexual lifestyle," the black clergy group publicly endorsed the repeal of the gay-rights ordinance.
After doing her due diligence, Rodriguez-Taseff satisfied herself that Sims was indeed targeted as a result of speaking his political views (even though his views were the antithesis of the ACLU's position). So she took Sims on as a pro-bono client.
Mursuli concedes he contacted the mayor's office to make sure Sims and Mark Coates, another black minister employed by the county as an administrative aide to Mayor Alex Penelas, were not advocating their positions while on county time. That's all. "My comments were that we should hold Community Relations Board employees to the highest standards," Mursuli says, referring to his inquiries into Sims's behavior.
But despite Mursuli's demurral, Rameau clearly recalls a June meeting he had with Heddy Peña of SAVE Dade, Mursuli, and others on how to campaign in the American black community. The gay-rights advocates worried that black preachers would use the Sunday pulpit to urge their flocks to vote to repeal the ordinance. So they strategized on how to get their message into the community.
"At one point Mursuli says, 'Let's send [CRB director and Sims's boss] Dr. Larry Capp and a couple others after Willie Sims, and I'll talk to the mayor and others,'" Rameau recounts. Although Mursuli, who is a member of the CRB board of directors, never stated explicitly that he wanted Sims fired, Rameau says that was his interpretation of the comments. "That's how I heard it -- 'Either Rev. Sims shuts up, or we go after his job.' We all spoke up that that wasn't the way to do this, it would simply alienate the black community."
Rodriguez-Taseff was at the meeting as well and says that when Sims's name came up there was talk about going to his supervisor at the county as well as people in the mayor's office. "Everyone agreed that approaching his bosses was just not appropriate," she says, adding that no one involved with SAVE Dade "endorsed any kind of retaliation against any of the black ministers. And that's the last I heard of it." Mursuli says he does not recall the meeting. At the next strategy session, someone told Rameau sotto voce that Mursuli had gone to the mayor's office about Sims. Rameau was incensed. He later told Rodriguez-Taseff.
A little more than a month later, in early August, Rodriguez-Taseff bumped into Sims at an unrelated rally on behalf of Haitian refugees. They talked through a third party. Sims said he'd call if he needed her help.
A couple of weeks later Sims phoned and told Rodriguez-Taseff that he indeed had been "targeted" at his job. On August 20 CRB director Capp sent Sims a letter warning him that he had violated the department's media policy by speaking to the Miami Herald and New Times about county business (the ordinance) without prior approval. The letter also chastised Sims for using profanity during the New Times interview. Sims maintained that the media contacted him because of his position in the AACCC and he always spoke to them in that capacity -- not as a CRB member. "The ACLU's position on this is very clear -- this is the same kind of discrimination we were fighting against [by opposing the repeal]," Rodriguez-Taseff says. She fired off a letter to Capp pointing out that Mursuli was never cautioned about speaking to the press even though he is a CRB board member and ostensibly bound by the same logic, and that the "ACLU is concerned that the violations set forth in the memorandum are a pretext; Sims [is really] being singled out" for his support of the repeal. The letter threatened litigation.
Capp says the ACLU letter was sent off to the county's legal department, and maintains that Mursuli never talked to him "about silencing Rev. Sims."
On September 5, Rodriguez-Taseff called Alfred Mesa, Mayor Penelas's communications director. Citing notes from the conversation, she says Mesa told her that Mursuli had in fact called to "complain" about Sims and Coates. She says Mesa told Mursuli, "What you are basically asking me to do is to prevent Mark Coates from preaching what he believes. We won't do that, that's preposterous."
"Her notes are accurate," Mesa says. "He did call and complain, but really what he was asking for was clarification on their duties as county employees. He did not call to get anybody fired."
But even as the ACLU took on this seemingly unexpected client, Sims was reevaluating his own position. He was now dealing regularly with Rodriguez-Taseff, and taking daily calls from Rameau, who was pitching different reasons why it was important to protect the gay-rights ordinance. He claims the final straw on his turnaround was a young gay man he worked with, who asked how men who believed in God could preach such hate. So Sims did some soul-searching. The gay issue had never been a big concern for black clergy, he says. Unemployment, racial profiling, restoring voting rights for felons, those were the problems he was working on. "This was almost like an afterthought."
He turned the matter over in his head, then reversed himself. Days before the September 10 vote he issued a press release stating, "I certainly don't want to be a party to any blatant acts of discrimination against any group of people. I have discussed this with many people in the Civil Rights field, and I value their opinion ... as an Ordained Minister of the Gospel I still believe the Homosexual Lifestyle is morally wrong ... However I don't think this gives us the right to discriminate against the Gay community."
The gay-rights coalition had just earned itself a most unlikely vote.
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The pickle Sims found himself in has prompted an interesting debate about the limits of free speech. One Mursuli supporter, who asked not to be identified, pointed out how incongruous it is for the CRB, an institution meant to ease tensions in the community, to have someone on staff who is publicly opposed to gay rights. If this were a civil rights issue for blacks, this person says, and there was a CRB member who was also a Ku Klux Klan member, the public would not tolerate it. "But it is still tolerable to be prejudiced against gays."
That's probably not accurate. The ACLU has famously defended the rights of KKK members in the past. As Mesa says, "Free speech is free speech."
But there is a subtext to this episode. The successful campaign to preserve the human rights ordinance has positioned the gay-rights coalition of groups and their leaders, including Mursuli, as a powerful political voice now, one that will be influential in the future. They'll be able to wield their influence. That was something Sims duly noted in his letter. "There are major problems of discrimination still plaguing the African American community such as the Restoration of Voting Rights, and the right for ex-felons to be gainfully employed, Fair employment, and equal housing are still major issues ... I am encouraging the Gay community, who [sic] has clearly demonstrated their economic and political strength, to give back to my community to support some of our real needs."
Mursuli says he has supported racial civil rights issues in the past and he will continue to do so in the future. "People will just have to judge me on my actions," he says.