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Despite landmark ruling, Pa. GOP leaders in no hurry to extend LGBTQ protections under state law

Cynthia Fernandez
Spotlight PA
The LGBT flag flies at the Capitol building in Harrisburg.

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HARRISBURG — For more than a decade, state Sen. Pat Browne has introduced the same bill over and over and over again, with the same result. The Lehigh County lawmaker is the prime sponsor of a measure that would enshrine anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people into Pennsylvania law.

Despite being one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate, however, Browne’s bill is once again languishing in committee, where it’s likely to stay for the time being.

That’s because GOP lawmakers who hold key posts in the General Assembly said they have no plans to immediately build on a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling  that extended federal civil rights protections against workplace discrimination to people based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision applies to Pennsylvania employees in companies with 15 or more workers, said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. But it doesn’t encompass discrimination in public accommodations — such as stores, restaurants, theaters, hotels, recreation facilities and private museums — and “will have zero effect on business owners refusing to serve people because they are transgender,” Roper said.

More:Philly Police ID suspect charged with murder of transgender woman from York

More:Supreme Court delivers victory for LGBT employment rights

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Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Act bars discrimination because of race, religion, age, sex, national origin or physical disability. The law applies to housing, education, employment and public accommodations, providing critical protections against practices such as eviction or discriminatory banking.

Browne wants to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the statute. Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, has for two decades introduced legislation, nicknamed The Fairness Act, with the same goal.

Frankel and Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, one of two openly LGBTQ lawmakers currently serving in the Legislature, recently wrote a letter urging the Republican chair of the House State Government Committee to take up the legislation.

“Now it is our turn to fill the gaps in our state law through a monumental legislative achievement of our own,” the lawmakers wrote.

The chair, Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, said he has no plans to do so at the moment.

“We have many other issues in State Government to deal with and we’ll have to see where this ranks with those other issues,” he wrote in an email. “It may be that the SCOTUS ruling and state regulations will negate the need for legislative action — time will tell.”

When asked about the letter, Everett said he determines which bills to consider “based on the consensus of committee members.” Of the 25 members, he said he’s heard from Sims and the committee’s minority chair, Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia, about the measure.

“I can tell you that it will not be considered at our meeting on Monday,” Everett had said Thursday, June 18. “What the future holds for it, I cannot tell you at this point.”

Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, an openly LGBTQ lawmaker who serves on the committee, decried the “cowardice” of his Republican colleagues who oppose the bill and said they will have to defend their decision “at the ballot box.” He said Boyle’s request was made on behalf of all the Democrats who serve on the panel.

“There is a real shift now,” Kenyatta said. “We are having a deeper conversation about the structural inequalities that have been pervasive in our laws. What it is going to take is courage, and we don’t have courage from the Republican leadership.”

In the other chamber, Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, chairs the Labor and Industry Committee, where Browne’s bill and a similar measure from a Democratic lawmaker have awaited action for more than a year.

Her spokesperson, Eric Kratz, said Bartolotta supports Browne’s legislation but has been “primarily focused on the impacts of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.”

Kratz said Bartolotta’s committee “does not have a date this legislation is scheduled to be considered at the moment.”

Jason Landau Goodman, president of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said there’s no excuse for lawmakers not to act.

“To not use the political capital that is necessary to move these bills is unconscionable in today’s world, where we have increasing attention on the social unrest related to racial and economic justice,” Goodman said. “There are half a million LGBT people in our commonwealth who urgently need these protections.”

Currently, LGBTQ Pennsylvanians have  limited recourse against discrimination.

An executive order signed by Gov. Tom Wolf covers LGBTQ state employees and contractors, and more than 40 municipalities have passed local anti-discrimination ordinances, according to the ACLU of Pennsylvania. And the state Human Relations Commission, which fields and mediates discrimination complaints, has since 2018 considered “sex” where it appears in state law to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Joel Bolstein, chair of the Human Relation Commission, said the high court “completely vindicated the position we took.”

“It is hard for someone to argue our interpretation of sex is improper because it is consistent with that decision,” Bolstein said. “There are some people who believe the protection would be stronger if it were written into the statute.”

Indeed, advocates say piecemeal protections aren’t enough. Members of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs pointed to Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, a Black trans woman murdered in Philadelphia who “lived without statewide discrimination protections.”

Fells was from York and was a 2010 graduate of William Penn Senior High School, according to her obituary.

“Waking up in a world that does not want us to exist is horrifying,” commissioners Ciora Thomas, Celena Morrison, and Naiymah Sanchez said in a statement. “Our society is collectively responsible for every death in the Black trans community, and we must continue to demand to be recognized, to be protected and to have these hate crimes against our community eradicated.”

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