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By Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board
Last month Gov. Rick Scott issued a proclamation declaring June 12 Pulse Remembrance Day “in recognition of the 49 innocent lives lost in the horrific attack on Pulse nightclub” in Orlando a year earlier. He directed state flags to be lowered to half-staff from sunrise to sunset and asked state residents to pause for a moment of silence.
It was a welcome gesture, but far too transitory for a tragedy that the governor acknowledged “left a solemn impact on our state that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.” A more enduring response from Scott would have been an executive order barring discrimination against LGBT Floridians, the class of people so brutally targeted in the Pulse massacre.
Such an order from Scott is long past due. Representatives with Equality Florida, a statewide organization that promotes LGBT rights, first appealed to the governor’s staff in a meeting a month after the massacre to bar discrimination by state agencies and companies that contract with the state against employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Equality Florida representatives said they were repeatedly told in follow-up conversations with the governor’s staff that an order was in the works — an account the staff has not disputed. But this week the governor’s press secretary suggested the order was unnecessary. “In accordance with federal guidelines, Florida state agencies do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and state employees should not be discriminated against in any way,” wrote Lauren Schenone.
While the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has interpreted federal civil-rights law as barring discrimination against LGBT employees, there is no specific language to that effect in the statute. Enforcement varies from state to state.
This explains why many governors around the country, both Democrats and Republicans, have issued the kind of executive order Equality Florida has sought from Scott. The list includes 13 states that, like Florida, lack their own broader laws barring LGBT discrimination. Why would those governors, including Ohio Republican John Kasich, have bothered with orders if they were unnecessary?
In the Florida Legislature, bills to prohibit LGBT discrimination statewide in employment, housing and public accommodations have been introduced every year for a least a decade. They’ve been supported by rank-and-file members in both parties, but buried by legislative leaders. If Scott had put his weight behind the bill and pressured House and Senate leaders to give it a chance to pass, it would be law by now.
Communities across Florida are way ahead of the governor and the Legislature in barring LGBT discrimination within their boundaries. In Central Florida, Orange County, Orlando, Osceola County, Volusia County and Mount Dora are among local governments that have passed their own ordinances. But a state law is still needed to fill in the gaps. LGBT Floridians who aren’t protected by local ordinances can still legally be fired by their employers, evicted by their landlords or refused service by businesses because of who they are or whom they love.
A coalition of Florida’s top employers, including Fortune 500 members, has pushed for a state law, arguing that it will help Florida compete for talented workers with other states. In several states where Scott has taken trips to encourage companies to move to Florida — including California, Connecticut and New York — state laws ban LGBT discrimination. Unfortunately, Florida will have to wait until the Legislature reconvenes next year for another shot at passing its own law.
But the governor doesn’t have to wait until next year to issue the kind of executive order that Equality Florida and local faith leaders have sought. Nor should he.
Beyond its practical benefit, an executive order would amount to a powerful moral statement from Scott. As Christine Leinonen, the mother of Pulse victim Christopher Leinonen, wrote in a guest column we published last month, the order “would send a clear signal to Floridians, the nation and the world that hate and bigotry have no place in the Sunshine State.”
What are you waiting for, Governor?