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Weekly Roundup: Firearms, Religious Freedom and the Rebel Flag

October 9, 2015 - 8:30pm

A ruling from Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis late Friday quickly overshadowed a week dominated by guns, religious liberty and the Confederate flag.

Lewis' choice of a congressional map supported by voting-rights groups struck a blow to House and Senate leaders, who argued that maps drawn by lawmakers and aides would better comply with Florida's anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" standards.

The case will ultimately be decided by the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled in July that some congressional districts crafted by the Legislature in 2012 unconstitutionally favored Republicans.

Friday's ruling came at the end of the Legislature's second presession committee week, filled with discussions about allowing Floridians to openly display their handguns, letting pastors say no to gay weddings, stripping the Confederate battle flag from the Senate's official seal, and the state's beleaguered unemployment benefits website.


A measure that would let individuals with conceal-carry permits walk around with their guns exposed made it through its first House hearing on Tuesday.

But, in a state where pro-firearms measures have advanced at a record clip over the past four years, concerns were quickly raised about how allowing individuals to openly display their handguns may conflict with private property rights.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted 8-4 Tuesday to support the proposal (HB 163), filed by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. The bill would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to openly carry firearms, something the state has banned since the law authorizing the licenses went into effect in 1987.

Gaetz described his proposal, one of a number of gun-related bills up for consideration this legislative session, as allowing citizens to be "armed with their own liberty."

But a sign that the measure may have a tougher journey through the more moderate Senate, where Gaetz's father, Sen. Don Gaetz, has sponsored an identical measure, the Florida Chamber of Commerce wants more clarity about private property rights.

"That's an important issue to many businesses who feel like that's something that could be of concern to them," Gary Hunter, a lobbyist representing the Chamber, said.

Others argued that the proposal needs to better define the manner in which people can publicly display handguns.

"What we're talking about is allowing people to walk down a street with a firearm in their hand --- pointed down, not pointed at anyone but pointed down --- they can lawfully walk past a bank, past a bar, past a school, not encased in a holster," said Rep. Dave Kerner, a Lake Worth Democrat who voted against the measure. "The right to carry a weapon irresponsibly is not a constitutionally protected right, and that is what this bill will do."

Shawn Bartelt, an Orlando mother of two, told the committee that, while crime is down, allowing people to walk around with exposed firearms creates a "less civilized" society.

"I do not want to walk around Lake Davis, when I walk my dogs, and know somebody is carrying an open gun there," Bartelt said. "There is a reason "Dwayne" Johnson, the Rock, doesn't walk around with his shirt off all the time, because it's intimidating. It's scary."


A measure that would allow pastors and others to refuse to perform marriage services that violate their theological beliefs cleared its first House vote on Wednesday.

In a party-line vote, the House Civil Justice Subcommittee advanced the emotionally charged proposal (HB 43) that supporters say is needed to reinforce First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom in the aftermath of this summer's U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down state-approved bans on same-sex marriages.

"The court has redefined marriage as we see it today," said Rep. Charlie Stone, R-Ocala. "So what's to say the court won't redefine what a (member of the) clergy can do next week, next month, next year?"

But opponents of the proposal questioned where such an exemption might lead.

LGBT supporters at the meeting didn't dispute that church officials should be free to choose whom they marry. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Equality Florida, one the state's most prominent gay-rights organizations, said his group would be willing to defend any church that refused to marry a gay couple and would even contribute to the congregation's defense fund.

But Guillermo Smith also said he was concerned about the precedent the legislation might set.

"At best, it's an insulting proposal that is pretty much a simple disapproval of same-sex relationships by a secular government," he said. "But what's worse, and what our top concern is, is that this bill is a Trojan horse which can be a vehicle that will bring even more anti-LGBT legislation to our state."

Democratic Reps. Kionne McGhee and Cynthia Stafford, who are both black, said they were worried that the bill would open the door for discrimination by white supremacists, who could use religious grounds to defend their racist views.

"As it currently states today in the language that we have before us, we have a dangerous, dangerous bill that can explode at any moment and rewrite our history books and return us to the days of Jim Crow," McGhee, a Miami lawyer, said.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, dismissed the concerns.

"They seem to be talking about a bill other than this one," he said. "So I think that this would be mainly for (same-sex marriage), but I don't see any reason or I didn't hear any reason today why you would simply say that."


Jesse Panuccio, Gov. Rick Scott's jobs chief who still needs Senate confirmation to keep his job next year, found himself having to defend his comments to a union lobbyist before outraged Republican lawmakers during a Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Committee meeting on Wednesday.

Panuccio already was facing heat from lawmakers, who told him that they continue to receive complaints from constituents having a hard time accessing the two-year-old, $77 million unemployment benefits website called Connect.

But committee Chairman Jack Latvala went further, accusing Panuccio of being arrogant and displaying a "sense of entitlement," because of the way the agency head dismissed Florida AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin's assertion that Florida may be purposely last in the nation in paying unemployment claims.

Latvala, who has sparred with Panuccio on a number of issues during the past couple of years, didn't defend Templin's claims, but took issue with the manner in which a speaker before his subcommittee was addressed by another speaker.

"I frankly don't like your attitude," Latvala, R-Clearwater, told Panuccio. "I think that there is an arrogance in the way you present this that's a sense of entitlement. And I just think it's wrong."

Panuccio said he didn't intend to attack any individual and defended how his agency handles jobless claims.

Templin had pointed to a Sept. 22 report from the National Employment Law Project that found fewer than one in eight unemployed Floridians --- 12 percent compared to 27 percent nationally --- receive jobless aid.

"Our concern is that you have a state agency, and perhaps Connect and the system itself, going above and beyond what the Legislature intended and is making it really hard for workers to get benefits," Templin said. "My personal concern is that is by design."

Panuccio described Templin's comments as "not valid" and the statistics by the National Employment Law Project as "specious."


Senate President Andy Gardiner and a couple of staff members scoped out the size of the wall behind the rostrum in the Senate chamber on Wednesday. Noticing reporters in the press gallery looking down on the scene, the Orlando Republican waved before he and his aides returned to their offices.

Earlier in the day, the Senate Rules Committee took a step toward establishing a new seal that doesn't include the Confederate battle flag.

The Senate's seal should include the flags of "those sovereignties that were legitimate sovereignties of this state," committee Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said.

Under the proposal approved by the committee, the Senate's official insignia would still include other non-American flags that flew over Florida, including the 1513 Spanish flag, the 1564 French flag and the 1763 flag of Great Britain. The U.S. flag and the Florida state flag would also appear on the marker.

The move is another step in a continuing backlash against symbols of Southern rebellion that started after a white supremacist massacred nine black churchgoers in South Carolina this summer.

The new Senate seal may not be the Legislature's only attempt to further bury the 1860s conflict.

Legislation has been filed to replace a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, whose likeness is one of two sculptures that represent Florida in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis recommended Friday that the Florida Supreme Court adopt a set of congressional districts proposed by voting-rights organizations.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Well, it is part of history, but the Nazi flag is part of history and shouldn't be forgotten, but it also shouldn't be lifted up." --- Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, on removing the Confederate battle flag from the Senate seal.



So I took a quick look at HB43 . . . . so let's get this straight . . . . . if a governmental clerk or a public businessmen suddenly deems themselves to be a clergy member or minister, they can refuse to "provide services, accommodations, facilities, goods, or privileges for a purpose related to the .... formation, or celebration of any marriage if such an action would cause the ... individual to violate a sincerely held religious belief of the . . . individual" . . . . . . . . . as always, the devil's in the details of far right legislative bigotry . . . . . unconstitutional and blatantly . . . . . .PATHETIC . . . .

Nothing about correction officers? No raise in years, severe shortage, to the pont of dangerous. It is so bad they take the traning, work a short time and then move to other states or even county jails where they make more money. The hdden cost of corporate tax cuts. Yea, underfunded goverment.

Nothing about the latest wacky tax reform? No mention that the useless idiots inTally have a brand new way to screw up tax monies. They want to do away with property tax and double sales tax. While it may seem attractive, to shift taxes from real property to everybody, including tourists and low income individuals there is one big problem. That would be puttng city and county budgets firmly into the hands of lawmakers. Who have proved both that they hold local goverments in contempt and that they have problems with dong the state budget. All in all, a terrible idea.....

I find the Florida Senate seal to be unique, therefore, putting any further thought or energy into changing it should be put to rest; leave it as is, this political nonsense will pass. The Senate seal has not, and does not represent intolerance or support the Charleston murders.

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