The Florida state senate gave final approval Wednesday to a bill giving the attorney general the power to file civil rights lawsuits, over objections from some senators who said the proposal could penalize churches that bar gays and lesbians from becoming members. The bill (HB 143A), which now goes to Gov. Jeb Bush for his signature, passed 36-1, with only Sen. Anna Cowin (R-Leesburg) voting against it. Attorney General Charlie Crist was in the chamber to watch the final vote and said afterward that he had discussed the bill with Bush and expects him to sign it. Crist said the legislation is needed to let him sue businesses that engage in a pattern of discrimination, just as the U.S. attorney general does. He praised the work of Sen. Alex Villalobos (R-Miami) and Rep. Jeff Kottkamp (R-Cape Coral) in helping to win approval of the bill, which died on the senate calendar in the final moments of the regular session on May 2. Sen. Tony Hill (D-Jacksonville) told senators before the vote that the nation was watching. "Let's send a message across the country: 'When you come to Florida, you're welcome,"' Hill said.
Cowin offered several amendments that she said would prevent the attorney general from misusing the power to sue houses of worship that might discriminate against gays and lesbians, cross-dressers, or others because of sincerely held religious beliefs. "Without this amendment, the Boy Scouts could be sued because they don't allow women," Cowin said. Sen. Daniel Webster (R-Winter Garden) called the amendment "comfort language" and urged its passage. But Villalobos said the U.S. Constitution assures that the law could not be used against churches and that changing the bill would result in its defeat.