There were more than a few high hopes on the minds of those who headed into the Orange County Administration building downtown on Jan. 26 at 11 a.m. Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs was scheduled that day to meet with the Orlando Anti Discrimination Ordinance Committee and several other LGBT leaders to discuss her apparent wobble on support for a domestic-partner registry for county residents – something she acknowledged the need for during her 2010 campaign but has been playing a political game of chicken with since last summer, until she finally landed in a full-on conflict following Orlando’s Dec. 12 passage of a citywide ordinance.
Jacobs had been pressed into a corner that called her promises of “transparency” into question more than her repeated mantra of not being a “rubber-stamp” leader. Her deliberation on the issue was beginning to look deliberate, if not flat-out secretive. Now, even though assurances of “continued talks” and “open dialogues” are being parroted by hopeful gay activists, Jacobs’ staid position – that she worries about the constitutionality of an ordinance, that she doesn’t think partnership rights should require shared domiciles – is, as some have predicted, no more than a Republican Party-line method of distraction in the name of avoidance. The disappointed faces that emerged from the Jan. 26 meeting told a story of swiftly diminishing returns. Jacobs isn’t going to budge.
That hasn’t stopped Orlando Anti Discrimination Ordinance Committee member and attorney Mary Meeks from trying.
“I think the issue becomes, there’s been some potential alternative plan to the domestic-partner registry that has been proposed by Mayor Jacobs that we had some discussion about today,” Meeks said following the Jan. 26 meeting, referring to Jacobs’ apparent advocacy for a “designated beneficiary” ordinance. “And, legally, a domestic-partnership registry is the best way to do this.”
Meeks pointed out that 46 percent of the U.S. population is already covered by domestic-partner registries or more extensive protections; 35 percent of Florida’s citizens likewise have those protections. That doesn’t sound unconstitutional. In fact, as Meeks provided in literature outside the meeting (the press, not surprisingly, was not allowed to attend the meeting), a 2000 decision by Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal found Broward County’s domestic-partnership registry did not “create a ‘marriage-like relationship’” and, because it was not limited to same-sex partners, it “did not create that plethora of rights and obligations that accompany a traditional marriage.”
Following the overwhelming passage of Amendment 2 in 2008, an amendment writing a same-sex marriage ban into Florida’s constitution that Jacobs supported, an advisory opinion to the state attorney general from the Florida Supreme Court concluded that the amendment would not affect domestic partnerships, a status that already existed in several counties in the state at that time. Even John Stemberger, the president of the Florida Family Policy Council, was quoted as differentiating between the two back in 2008, telling the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times)that “Six to eight rights could never be legally construed to be the substantial equivalent equal to the huge number of rights conferred in marriage.”
That’s why Jacobs’ constitutional concerns come as a bitter pill for Equality Florida’s state field director, Joe Saunders, who fought against Amendment 2.
“It was frustrating, because you get through that entire fight, you hear them say that what happens won’t affect domestic partnership,” he says. “To hear that carted back out is very emotional.”
But it is being carted back out, and though she continually denies it, Jacobs may be along for the ride. In a position statement revised on Jan. 5, Focus on the Family – the national group of which Stemberger’s Family Policy Council is a part – reiterated what most already suspected: “Given the goal of redefining marriage, Focus on the Family opposes the legal creation of civil unions and domestic partnerships as counterfeit policy attempts to imitate marriage.” Also, Stemberger recently said that he has no position on domestic partnerships so long as they don’t create a special status for gay couples. Jacobs continues to echo that sentiment, though activists point out that she already used the term “domestic partner” when she passed domestic-partnership benefits for county employees last year.
Perhaps that’s why Jacobs has been so intent on managing her message in recent weeks. Following a Jan. 9 press conference hastily assembled by Jacobs to get the media on her side before a town hall planned by gay activists, she personally contacted at least two media outlets in an effort to scold them on what she considered unfair coverage. (Her staff also contacted Orlando Weekly, which covered the story extensively; “Separate, not equal,” Jan. 12.)
Following the Jan. 26 meeting, Jacobs released a statement to the uninvited media that defined her position, however vaguely, once again: “I will continue to research this complex issue and will schedule another meeting with the group before bringing the issue to the Board of County Commissioners next month. My goal is to introduce an ordinance in Orange County that meets the needs of our citizens without substantial risk of being successfully challenged in a court of law,” she concluded.
Behind the scenes, activists appear to be scrambling for a Plan B. They say that should somebody else on the Board of County Commissioners decide to present a plan different than the one Jacobs ultimately produces, she promises to be open to allowing the matter to go up for a vote, even if she plans to vote against it. Finding the right commissioners could be difficult, though, as some among the board that have expressed support have similar political ties to those of Jacobs. Notably, Commissioners Scott Boyd and Jennifer Thompson utilized consultant John Dowless, the former head of the Christian Coalition of Florida who was “outed” by the gay Washington Blade in 2006, on their campaigns.
Surprisingly, Dowless was allowed into the Jan. 26 closed-door meeting with gay activists, though by most accounts – including those of Jacobs herself shedding a tear or two – he didn’t say anything. Asked what he was there for by another reporter, Dowless smiled and picked up his pace, walking away.
“I was a listener,” he said.