York LGBT activists praise Wolf executive order

The Associated Press

News that Gov. Tom Wolf will sign an executive order to prohibit discrimination by state contractors against people who are lesbian, gay or transgender was heralded as a step forward by York County rights activists.

"It's a sign of a true leader. It's unexpected. It's bold," said Carla Christopher, president of York's Equality Fest and co-director of York Progressives. "A leader is someone who doesn't waste his time. If he can't go over the mountain, he finds a way around it."

Wolf told WESA-FM in Pittsburgh on Wednesday that he had hoped the Legislature would pass legislation, the Pennsylvania Fairness Act, designed to outlaw discrimination based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

But he says he’s decided he needs to move forward with the executive order since the bills have stalled.

"I think it's about time," Jim Thompson, of York City, said when he learned of the pending order.

Thompson, an openly gay man, said he's dealt with his share of discrimination over the years. Though it's been curtailed in recent years, it's still an issue, mainly in social settings.

Though he praised Wolf's move, he said people need to get past the perception that someone's sexual orientation or skin color somehow makes that person less than other people.

"I can't believe it's really (an issue) in this day and age," he said.

Wolf says Pennsylvania needs to be seen as a welcoming place, and he cited the backlash against what he called a “discriminatory” bill signed by North Carolina’s governor.

Elsewhere: North Carolina has come under heavy criticism since Gov. Pat McCrory signed the law, requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms that match the sex on their birth certificates. The law, passed last month in response to a Charlotte ordinance that offered protections to gay and transgender people, also excludes sexual orientation and gender identity from the state’s anti-discrimination law and bars local governments from expanding anti-discrimination rules.

More than 100 corporate leaders have decried the law, saying it is unfair and makes it more difficult to attract talent.

PayPal announced this week it has canceled a major expansion in the state, saying in a statement, "This decision reflects PayPal’s deepest values and our strong belief that every person has the right to be treated equally, and with dignity and respect.”

The payment service provider's announcement came days after Lionsgate decided to move the filming of the pilot episode of a comedy series to Canada. New Jersey-based Braeburn Pharmaceuticals also said it was reconsidering building a $50 million facility in Durham County projected to bring 50 jobs paying an average of $76,000 a year. The NBA raised doubts about whether it would continue plans to hold its all-star game in Charlotte next year.

Georgia and Mississippi lawmakers also have recently passed legislation critics say would permit discrimination against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The debate flared in Pennsylvania in recent days as anti-sexual assault activists and the business community lined up with gay rights activists against a social conservative organization. At issue are long-stalled pieces of legislation designed to outlaw discrimination based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Pa. bills: Identical House and Senate measures, House Bill 1510 and Senate Bill 974 — long languishing in committee — would add sexual orientation, gender identity or expression to a law that already empowers the state Human Relations Commission to investigate complaints of discrimination in employment, housing and public services because of someone’s race, sex, religion, age or disability. The commission can impose civil penalties, such as back pay or damages.

In recent days, an organization called Defend My Privacy, backed by the socially conservative Pennsylvania Family Institute, put up a website and Harrisburg-area highway billboards attacking the legislation, calling them Bathroom Bills. It also set up a booth at last weekend’s Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, a prominent gathering of conservatives that hosted GOP presidential candidates Ted Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, and John Kasich, Ohio’s governor.

It said the bills would spur lawsuits to abolish gender-specific bathrooms and locker rooms in schools and public places and would lead to sexual assaults in public restrooms.

The Pennsylvania Family Institute’s president, Michael Geer, said such laws also would infringe on rights of conscience by exposing business owners and service providers to government prosecution or lawsuits.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Competes, a business advocacy group backed by The Hershey Co., GlaxoSmithKline and others, called Defend My Privacy a “shadow group” and said it should take down the “inaccurate, fear-based misinformation.”

Senate State Government Committee Chairman Mike Folmer says he wants to vet the Senate bill before possibly holding a vote to make sure it doesn’t violate religious liberties or freedom of conscience.

- Staff writers Greg Gross and David Weissman contributed to this report.