Sending a mixed signal: Statement from Orange Mayor sparks debate

Orlando – In late July, same-sex marriage was advanced by two South Florida circuit courts. But the debate made an unexpected stop in Orange County Commission chambers.

Responding to queries from activists and the media, a majority of commissioners endorsed marriage equality.

“I am personally supportive [of marriage equality] and look forward to the continued advancement of equal rights, respect and freedoms for all individuals under the law,” said Republican Commissioner Scott Boyd.

And in a long-awaited move, County Mayor Teresa Jacobs issued a confusing statement of qualified support to Watermark that drew harsh criticism, even confounding supporters.

“Everybody else did the right thing, and she blew it,” said Democratic advisor Bob Poe. “Her latest attempt to appease our community is nothing short of insulting.”

The full statement reads:
Our country was founded on certain core values, chief among them equality and religious freedom. Therefore, I am glad the question of Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage is before the courts to determine if it denies same-sex couples equal rights and protections under the law. Although, as mayor, I have no jurisdiction on this issue, I have read the Miami-Dade lawsuit and believe that a very strong case was made.

Regardless of the decision of the court, I hope that religious institutions will continue to have the freedom to define marriage according to their doctrines. Protecting the right to practice one’s religion without interference from government is an equally important cornerstone of our free nation.

Public reaction could be measured on Facebook, where numerous posts resulted in hundreds of comments. Some labeled Jacobs’ statement “progress,” “a beginning” and “a step in the right direction.”

“It’s pretty clear where she’s headed,” said attorney Patrick Howell, who has spoken with Jacobs about this and other LGBT issues along with activists Mikael Audebert, Carlos Carbonell and Randy Ross.

But detractors pointed to the difference in the two paragraphs.

“It was a vague statement of non-support for marriage equality,” observed Poe, “followed by a full-throated endorsement of religious freedom to discriminate against us.”

Attorney and activist Mary Meeks, who butted heads with Jacobs over passage of a countywide domestic partner registry, characterized the statement as “a smokescreen for bigotry.”

The last time Jacobs addressed marriage equality directly was in an interview with Watermark during her 2010 campaign for county mayor. At that time she embraced civil unions but not same-sex marriage, saying “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” She also opposed adoption rights for gays and lesbians. But she expressed cautious support for non-discrimination protections and partner benefits.

After she was elected, Jacobs quietly lobbied commissioners to include sexual orientation in the county’s human rights ordinance. And months after taking office, the county approved domestic partner benefits for county employees with her support.

“Seeing the mayor step up and make this a priority is refreshing and exciting,” said Equality Florida’s Joe Saunders, now a state representative.

Jacobs’ involvement in passage of a countywide domestic partner registry was more problematic, but it eventually passed in mid-2012.

Many hope that Jacobs will embrace LGBT equality like her counterpart at City Hall, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. But after Jacobs statement, a comparison between the two on the Metropolitan Business Association Facebook page was removed after strong objections.

In her 2010 interview with Watermark, Jacobs referenced generational shifts and her Catholic background.

“It may go back to when I grew up, but I worry that I may not be acknowledging where we are,” she mused. “I may change my mind in another 10 or15 years.”

Clearly some are trying to accelerate that process.

“I believe the mayor is further along in her thinking than her statement indicates,” said Audubert.

Others are frustrated that this powerful and influential community leader—currently running for re-election without opposition—seems deaf to what Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie calls “the civil rights cause of our generation.”

“When Mayor Jacobs actually says she supports marriage equality, I will be thrilled to express my sincere appreciation,” said Ted Maines. “In the meantime, this ‘statement’ was a huge waste of my time.”

Jacobs canceled an interview with Watermark earlier this month. Her office has promised to reschedule it soon.

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