Corbett backs bill banning bias against gays

HARRISBURG -- Gov. Tom Corbett says he supports a bill that would ban employment and housing discrimination against gays and lesbians in Pennsylvania, although his administration will continue to fight in the courts to uphold a state law banning same-sex marriage.

Mr. Corbett, a Republican, said Wednesday that he had mistakenly believed that federal law covered discrimination based on sexual orientation in areas such as employment, housing and public accommodations.

"It was made clear to me that federal law did not cover what House Bill and Senate Bill 300 would cover," he said. "I had a presumption that it did. ... I don't think there should be discrimination. It doesn't change my position on the issue of the definition of a marriage."

The state is fighting a federal lawsuit over its ban on same-sex marriage and, additionally, the state sued a local official in suburban Philadelphia over the summer who issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The bill Mr. Corbett said he supports, sponsored by Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, would "prohibit discrimination based on an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity or expression," according to a memo seeking co-sponsors.

Mr. Frankel said the governor's support was good news.

"About 70 percent of Pennsylvanians have supported these bills in polls over eight years, joined in this legislative session by a record number of legislators from both parties," Mr. Frankel, a longtime supporter of the legislation, said Wednesday.

The bill has 93 co-sponsors, nearly half of the 203 House members.

A companion bill in the Senate has 25 sponsors. There are 50 state senators.

Gary Van Horn, president of The Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, an LGBT advocacy group, said he was happy to have the governor's support, but is concerned it is politically motivated.

"A few weeks ago, he was comparing gay marriage to the marriage of a brother and sister," Mr. Van Horn said, referring to Mr. Corbett's recent controversial remark on a Harrisburg morning show.

"I find it very odd that he's seen the light all of a sudden," he said.

He added he would want to make sure any bill would also ban discrimination based on gender identity and expression to cover the transgender community, which House Bill 300 does.

Mr. Van Horn also questioned how the governor's words would translate into action.

"The governor has been a failure in getting a lot of his main legislative [issues] through," such as liquor privatization, he said. "I'd be curious about [how] he'd attempt to get this passed and to his desk."

Getting to his desk could be a problem -- the legislation has languished in the House State Government Committee, chaired by arch-conservative Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler.

Mr. Metcalfe, a frequent critic of Mr. Corbett, called the governor's comments "political posturing," adding, "It looks like he's moving to the left."

Mr. Metcalfe said he believes the bill would discriminate against Christians, and if he brought it up for a vote it would be defeated in his committee.

Harrisburg-based Republican strategist Charlie Gerow said it was easy to see how Mr. Corbett could, at the same time, support banning discrimination while still believing the commonwealth should go to court to uphold its same-sex marriage ban.

"[The marriage issue] is the law that the General Assembly -- which is supposed to represent the manifest wishes of the people of Pennsylvania -- passed," he said, unlike legislation that has been merely proposed, but not passed into law. Mr. Gerow's firm has done work for Mr. Corbett's campaign, though Mr. Gerow said he was speaking only for himself and not on behalf of the campaign.

According to the memo seeking co-sponsors for Mr. Frankel's bill, 30 local governments statewide have ordinances to promote workplace and housing fairness, and all 26 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Pennsylvania have nondiscrimination policies.

"These successful companies recognize that it is good business practice to protect workers from discrimination. The Commonwealth should be seen as a place that welcomes any individual who wants to work hard, succeed, and grow our economy without the fear of being fired or refused services simply because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity," the memo said.

A similar nondiscrimination bill passed the U.S. Senate last month, and gained the support of another Pennsylvania conservative, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.

Kate Giammarise:, 1-717-787-4254 or Twitter @KateGiammarise.

First Published December 18, 2013 3:03 PM

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