ORLANDO, Fla. — The attorney for two women who were denied entry into an Orlando strip club in 2018 because they weren’t with a man said Friday he plans to take their case to the Florida Supreme Court again because the issue is more than who can have fun at a gentlemen’s club.
It’s whether local governments can enact anti-discrimination ordinances that offer more protections than the Florida Civil Rights Act, said Matthew Dietz, a Miami attorney who represents Brittney Smith and Anita Yanes.
“We do believe that this issue is so important,” Dietz said. “We’re living in a time when these rights are being constricted.”
Dietz made the comments just hours after Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal on Friday refused to rehear the case following its ruling last March that a portion of Orange County’s human rights ordinance was unconstitutional because it is preempted by the Florida Civil Rights Act.
Appeals Court Judge John Harris, however, confirmed that the issue of whether all anti-discrimination cases should be filed through the state or if local governments are allowed to enact such ordinances beyond state law is “one of great public importance.” Judges Mary Alice Nardella and Carrie Ann Wozniak concurred.
That likely gives the Smith and Yanes the opportunity to have their case heard by the state Supreme Court, Dietz said, even though the high court declined to take up the case almost two years ago.
“The case is going to move forward, and the Florida Supreme Court is going to decide whether the Florida Civil Rights Act preempts local anti-discrimination ordinances,” Dietz said. “For the past 50 years, counties and municipalities in Florida have been passing anti-discrimination ordinances that protect the citizens in their counties and cities. … Until today, those ordinances have been valid.”
Steve Mason, an Altamonte Springs attorney representing Rachel’s, said Orange County overstepped its authority because local governments cannot enact ordinances that conflict with state laws. He said he looks forward to arguing the case before the Supreme Court.
“These people are zealots and they are extremists,” Mason said about Orange County leaders. “I cannot wait to go to Tallahassee because I am going to rip into them. …These people, they know the law, and they know what they’re doing is wrong. And I look forward to meeting them in court.”
The women first filed their lawsuit in 2018 against Rachel’s Orlando, a night club, after they were told at the front door by a manager that the club’s policy does not allow women in without men. The club says its policy is to prevent prostitution, avoid distracting men watching the dancers and prevent domestic incidents.
The women said they wanted to go to Rachel’s to check out a dancer who looked like Yanes.
In a February 2018 video of the incident, Smith and Yanes are seen telling a Rachel’s manager just after 10 p.m. that they enjoy watching women dance and would tip the dancers. They could not understand why they would not be admitted into the club and called it discrimination.
“It’s club rules. It’s club policy. That’s all,” the manager tells the women. ”We’ve had wives come in here and try to get their husbands out of here.”
The two sued Rachel’s, claiming its policy violated Orange County’s human rights ordinance, which protects against gender and sexual orientation discrimination. The 1992 Florida Civil Rights Act bans discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations, but not for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.
Eventually, more than 20 local governments across Florida — including Orange County and the cities of Orlando and Mascotte — along with the ACLU of Florida and the League of Women Voters of Florida, joined the women’s case.
The suit took several legal twists and turns. An Orange County judge first sided with Rachel’s, ruling that Orange’s ordinance was preempted by the state law. But the Fifth District Court of Appeal sent the case back to circuit court, saying Orange County should have been made part of the suit.
In April 2021, Circuit Judge Jeff Ashton ruled that the county’s ordinance did not conflict with Florida’s Civil Rights Act.
Rachel’s then appealed Ashton’s ruling and won last March, with justices saying the Orange ordinance is partially unconstitutional.
Under Florida law, plaintiffs who claim discrimination must first have their case reviewed by the Florida Commission on Human Relations before it can be filed as a lawsuit in a court. The commission has 180 days to do an inquiry.
Most local anti-discrimination ordinances, including Orange County’s, allow a person to go straight to court and get “immediate relief” rather than wait the 180 days, Dietz said.
“You shouldn’t have to wait 180 days,” Dietz said. “And the discrimination can continue during that time.”
Dietz noted that Orange’s ordinance includes more protected classes from discrimination than the state law, including sexual orientation.
“Counties are now not permitted to do anything more than what Florida prescribes,” regarding discrimination, Dietz said.
Mason said that Rachel’s has changed its policy and has been allowing unaccompanied women into its club since 2018, soon after the lawsuit was filed.