EDITORIAL: It's past time for the Pa. Fairness Act
A landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week made it clear that LGBTQ Americans can at least keep their jobs.
But for gay Pennsylvanians, years of foot dragging by the state Legislature mean that the protections outlined in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that ban discrimination in employment based on race, religion, national origin or sex go no further than that.
In the Bostock vs. Clayton County opinion handed down on June 15, Justice Neil Gorsuch made it clear that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity will not be tolerated in employers.
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"In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law," Gorsuch wrote. The case was decided 6-3, with Gorsuch, President Donald Trump's first appointee to the court, and Chief Justice John Roberts joining the four liberal justices in the majority.
But while the decision means individuals cannot be fired solely because they are LGBTQ, in more than half of the states, including Pennsylvania, there is no law specifically prohibiting discrimination against LGTBQ people in public accommodations, including stores, restaurants, theaters, hotels and more. People can still lose their housing and be barred as customers at businesses because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
An executive order signed by Gov. Tom Wolf covers LGBTQ state employees and contractors, while 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.
Still, those decisions do not carry the weight that legislation protecting the LGBTQ community from discrimination would.
Some members of the General Assembly have been trying to right this inequity in term after term for decades with the Pennsylvania Fairness Act, which would add LGBTQ protections to the state's Human Relations Act. But, again and again, the measure is stonewalled by Republican chairs of committees in both the House and Senate who refuse to bring it up for discussion.
This happens despite widespread support for the Fairness Act in the business community throughout the state and support by both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature. In the 2018 gubernatorial race, both Gov. Tom Wolf and challenger Scott Wagner spoke in favor of the change.
And why wouldn't they? Nondiscrimination is in everyone's favor. Businesses that are friendly to the LGBTQ community expand their customer base. No one should have the right to turn away a customer because the customer is trans or gay.
Democratic state Reps. Dan Frankel, of Allegheny, and Brian Sims, of Philadelphia, are urging that the House State Government Committee take up the legislation in light of the court ruling and the momentum toward social change being felt at this moment.
“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. Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, chairs the Senate Labor and Industry Committee, where a similar bill also lags, and she also refuses to bring it to the committee.
There's no excuse for this. Republicans in the Legislature must put aside their petty prejudices and allow LGBTQ Pennsylvanians the protections granted to all other citizens of the commonwealth.