Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Doral mayor channels ‘Footloose’

Adultery! In Doral! This ordinance would instigate adultery and fornication, the mayor warned. Not to mention lewd and lascivious acts.

Local pastors paraded to the microphone to support the mayor's contention at Wednesday's city council meeting. Sin, they said, would fairly engulf the city if the council voted to extend spousal benefits to domestic partners.

Matthew Dietz, watching the madness with his wife from a seat in the council chambers, kept thinking of a scene in the 1984 movie Footloose, when the up-tight, small-minded city council in the fictional town Bomont cited similar concerns.

Bomont fended off adultery and fornication by banning dancing.

In Doral, the awful sin that would open the city to carnal indulgences had to do with health insurance.

What Mayor Luigi Boria (himself an ordained minister) lacked in logic, he made up in fervor, as he orchestrated opposition to the measure “providing for extension of benefits to domestic partners of city employees.”

Dietz, a disability rights lawyer, watched as Boria and the pastors railed against an ordinance that would offer gay partners of city employees the same benefits as married spouses. Some gay activists tried to counter the ugly remarks. The argument went on for nearly three hours. “It was hard to watch,” he said.

Dietz, well known in South Florida for championing the rights of disabled children, had been invited to the council meeting to receive a commendation for his help in drafting a city ordinance requiring first responders, if there was no alternative available, to help a disabled person transport a stricken service dog to a veterinarian (The ordinance was inspired by the plight of a blind woman left stranded and helpless in Doral after her guide dog suffered a seizure.). He talked about his growing sense of incongruity; that on the same night the council was adopting an ordinance designed to make the city more welcoming to the disabled, the mayor and his cohorts were fomenting hostile bigotry toward gays.

Not only that, the arguments against equal benefits for domestic partners were larded with mendacity. The mayor and his allies said they were worried that a Doral domestic-partners-benefits ordinance would clash with the Florida constitutional amendment that bans gay marriage and would cause the city great legal problems. Yet similar ordinances have become commonplace throughout Florida, enacted over the years by Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, by cities like Miami, Coral Gables, Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Pembroke Pines, Hollywood, Miramar, Tampa, Orlando, St. Petersburg, Tallahassee. All have withstood legal challenges.

Two council members, rather than embracing the mayor’s homophobic argument, said they were worried about the cost that would be entailed if the city covered domestic partners benefits. (Although the city staff’s report assured the council, “After discussion with our healthcare providers, the carriers will not charge an additional percentage to the regular monthly premium, in order to include domestic partnership coverage to all city employees.”) “I don’t know what gets me more pissed off,” Dietz said. “People who are absolutely honest about their bigotry or folks who try to give it an economic justification.”

As the arguments went on, “I got more and more upset,” said Dietz, 43, who has practiced law in Miami-Dade since 1996. He said his wife persuaded him not to walk out of the meeting.

Mayor Boria picked an odd week to disparage gays, particularly on the subject of domestic partnerships. A U.S. Supreme Court decision last Monday effectively dissolved gay marriage bans in Virginia, Utah, Oklahoma, Indiana and Wisconsin. Then, as the legal dominoes fell through other federal appellate districts, bans were jettisoned last week in Nevada, Idaho, West Virginia and North Carolina. Gay marriage is essentially legal in 35 states. “And everyone knows that the ban in Florida is going to be found unconstitutional,” Dietz said.

It doesn’t take a legal genius to deduce that in Florida the notion of “domestic partnerships” as a vehicle to extend healthcare benefits to gay spouses will soon be moot. That the whole hate-filled debate is about to be superceded by the federal courts. Yet the famously peculiar mayor persisted. Finally, the measure was deferred. The city attorney was told to come back with an opinion on the proposed ordinance’s constitutionality. He has no deadline but if he waits a few weeks, he can simply paraphrase (changing a few words here and there) the coming federal appellate court decision that will end Florida’s ban on gay marriage.

Finally, it was time for Dietz to come before the council and receive his commendation. “They said wonderful things about me. How I volunteered my time. But I told them, sorry, but no.”

The lawyer, former chair of the Equal Opportunities in the Law committee of the Florida Bar, told the mayor and council that after listening to so many speeches “that spewed hate and twisted the law,” he wouldn’t accept their commendation. “I could not stand for equality for persons with disabilities and not stand for the same equality for my LGBT brothers and sisters.”

Dietz told them, “I could not accept an award from a city that values service dogs more than human beings.”