HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) – Like most states, Pennsylvania has a statute that grants certain groups of people extra legal protection against discrimination.
It’s called the Human Relations Act, and it prohibits employment and housing discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, handicap or disability,” or use of guide and support animals.
One group it misses? LGBTQ+ people.
They aren’t mentioned in the statute, and despite the Human Relations Commission reinterpreting the law last summer to allow “sex” to apply to sexual orientation and gender identity, some state lawmakers and equality advocates maintain the Human Relations Act won’t be comprehensive until it specifically includes LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians.
The conversation is ongoing in the state Legislature about whether to do that. And it prompted a question to PA Post’s Listening Post from Ed Webb, of Carlisle, who wrote:
“What efforts are underway to create state-wide anti-discrimination protections on grounds of gender expression and sexuality in line with other protected classes?”
He has moved around a lot, he said, and that’s in part what prompted his question.
“I’ve been in places in which minorities, including that particular minority, have been quite oppressed,” he said. “And so, I’m interested to see progress on that in places I live.”
There could be some movement on the issue this legislative session.
For years, a group of lawmakers — led largely by Democrats, but including members from both parties — have attempted to pass a bill that would enshrine LGBTQ+ protections in the Human Relations Act.
It’s called the Fairness Act. Rep. Dan Frankel, an Allegheny County Democrat, is its longtime sponsor. In the memo for his latest attempt, filed earlier this month, he wrote that in “prior years, this legislation has not received a vote despite overwhelming bipartisan support.”
That’s a reference to the bill’s recent track record of being, inevitably, assigned to the House State Government Committee for initial consideration. Since 2011, Butler County Republican Daryl Metcalfe has served as majority chair of that committee. In that time, he’s been staunchly against bringing the bill up for a vote. Aside from personal opposition, he has maintained it wouldn’t pass the committee, and so would be a waste of time.
But this year, the calculation changed for Fairness Act supporters. Metcalfe has been re-assigned to a different committee, and his State Government successor is approaching the issue at least slightly differently.
Newly-minted chairman Garth Everett is a Republican from Lycoming County. Asked where he stands on LGBTQ+ discrimination protections, he said there is “no legislation that’s dead on arrival, as far as I’m concerned.”
The Fairness Act, he said, “is a big one, and it’s one that we’ll be getting to.”
But it’s not at the top of his agenda.
“The ones that I think we want to take up first — and they’re big, hot button issues also — are election reform … and of course, redistricting,” he said.
Even when Everett decides it’s time to take another look at the Fairness Act, it likely won’t be smooth sailing.
Bryan Cutler, the Lancaster County Republican recently elected as House Majority Leader, isn’t on board. If the bill gets through the State Government Committee, supporters will be hard-pressed to get it approved by the full House without Cutler’s say-so.
“One of my concerns any time that we start talking about how different we are is the fact that you’re putting into law all these lines that delineate who we are and why we’re different,” he said. “I’d rather focus on where we agree.”
He added, “any time you make a list you always risk leaving someone out and I don’t think that’s right, so I think what you ought to do is just be more inclusive in terms of not discriminating.”
Fairness Act co-sponsor Brian Sims said he thinks Cutler and other Republicans skeptical of the bill will come around.
Sims is a Philadelphia Democrat, and is Pennsylvania’s first openly gay state lawmaker.
“Not only has a lot changed with the committee, of course…a lot has changed with the makeup of the Legislature generally,” he said.
Sims maintains that if the bill makes it to the House floor, a majority of members will support it. Asked whether Cutler’s opposition is a deterrent, he said no.
“In the last major rewrite, we rewrote the bill with the Catholic conference involved, and with the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce involved,” he said. “We did that with a specific eye toward that Republican leadership.”
Twenty-one states — plus Washington D.C., Guam, and Puerto Rico — prohibit housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Pennsylvania is one of eight states that prohibit such discrimination for public employees, but not private. Four other states protect public employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, but not gender identity.
Seventeen states offer no such protection.