Bill to overturn discrimination against gay employees stalled in Harrisburg

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Pennsylvania is a state in which a same-sex couple can be married, then legally fired for it.

Same-sex marriage became legal in Pennsylvania when a federal district judge ruled in May that the commonwealth’s ban was unconstitutional, but the state remains the only one in the Northeast that does not ban discrimination in housing, workplace and public accommodation based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Proposed legislation that would address that conundrum — House and Senate Bill 300 — is sitting in committee in both chambers of the state Legislature.

If passed, the bill would amend the 1955 Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to include sexual orientation and gender expression under an umbrella of identities protected from different types of discrimination. The bill has bipartisan support, with a combined 125 sponsors in both chambers. Gov. Tom Corbett has said he plans to sign it if it passes.

The bill is being debated everywhere from places of worship to places of business. At the crux of the conflict is the First Amendment.

“The U.S. Constitution ensures the freedom of religion, but so does that same sacred document ensure our freedom from religion,” explained Rabbi Aaron Benjamin Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside. “All kinds of folks line up on different sides of this issue.”

“This is the last vestige of legal discrimination,” said state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, the bill’s prime sponsor in the House. “Same-sex couples can marry, but doing so puts them at risk. It’s a paradox that we need to rush to address.”

But Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, who chairs the appropriations committee where the bill now sits, is not in a rush. Mr. Metcalfe has said that he has no intention of ever bringing the bill to a vote. He could not be reached for comment.

Some opposed to the bill say it could impinge on religious freedom.

Bishop David Zubik of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh stressed the need for anti-discrimination legislation that does not restrict the freedom of faith.

“To say that you can’t discriminate against anybody is imperative,” he said. “But that can’t come at the expense of a religious group or a religious person.”

The bill contains an exemption that allows religious institutions, affiliates, charities and educational organizations to hire “as is calculated by such organization to promote the religious principles or aims, purposes or fraternal principles for which it is established or maintained.”

Bishop Zubik said the current religious exemption is not sufficient, but that the bill could be reworked to address his concerns: “It seems to me that if the legislators went back to the drawing board and were able to design exemptions that wouldn’t infringe on religious liberty, we would certainly examine them.”

Other groups are firmly opposed to the bill regardless of exemptions.

“We oppose the bill wholesale. In the end, it still introduces sexual orientation and gender identity into the law,” said Brandon McGinley, the Pennsylvania Family Institute’s field director for the Western region. “Any supported religious exemption would be so anemic that it would be ineffective.”

“The fact that they don’t even want to have the conversation. … I don’t even think the Family Institute has a place at the table,” responded Mr. Frankel. “To not even concede that perhaps this type of discrimination is not something we should embrace? They ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

A 2013 Gallup poll estimated that 174,000 LGBT Pennsylvanians are in the workforce.

Mary Almy of Mars is one of them. In 2011, she was fired by the Medical Benevolence Foundation several hours after sharing her identity as a transgender person. Born biologically male, Ms. Almy had hormone treatments and then surgery. Ms. Almy, who has a business degree and accounting experience, now works at Target.

“I went to a job fair in Cranberry after that,” Ms. Almy said. “A representative from one of the companies wouldn’t even shake my hand. Another said, ‘We’re not hiring anybody like you.’ ”

Her wife, Elizabeth McCormick, a Presbyterian minister, also lost her job and now works at Giant Eagle.

“It goes beyond workplace discrimination,” Ms. Almy said. “It’s also the idea that I could walk into a restaurant and they could refuse to serve me. It’s the idea that I could be thrown out of a bathroom.”

“It’s just wrong,” said state Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, who supports the bill. “Sexual orientation and gender identity have nothing to do with your ability to accomplish a task or be accommodating in living arrangements. Pennsylvania has to get beyond this. The world is moving beyond Pennsylvania.”

The advocacy group Equality PA notes that some 300 religious leaders have signed statements of support for anti-discrimination legislation.

“Sometimes we need laws that call our attention to our differences and the privileges we unwittingly fail to recognize,” Rabbi Bisno said. “Lest we find that our theological thumb is placed on the scale of justice.

“The government cannot allow the exercise of religion to limit another’s full access to the rights of citizenship.”

In Pennsylvania, many municipalities have amended anti-discrimination ordinances to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

“They have to do that because Pennsylvania has not led with a statewide policy,” Mr. Browne said. “It’s time for us to step forward and apply it across the board.”

Emma Brown:

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